Supersized cell in middle school

Published on Thu, Mar 14, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Supersized cell in middle school

By Meg Olson

Three weeks ago Todd Apple’s seventh grade class didn’t know cells had parts. Today, they know what those parts are, how they work, and they can take you on a tour through a 150 square-foot model of a cell they built in their middle school classroom.

Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum studded with ribosomes, lysosomes, nuclei, vacuoles and chloroplasts are all suspended in a giant bubble of plastic sheeting – the cell membrane. “The cell membrane keeps waste and bad things out,” explained Chris Nielson. “The ribosomes are like construction sites. The lysosomes are like the recycling bin.” Except for the suspended organelles, the cell looks empty, but Tasleem Kahn explained real cells weren’t. “This isn’t empty, it’s full of cytoplasm, like a gel,” he said.

Jessica Welter and her team made the cell’s nucleus out of papier maché, complete with the small pores that take genetic material out into the cell to be translated into proteins. “The nucleolus is here inside,” she pointed out. Ashley Damon and her team made Golgi apparatus out of paper plates and oatmeal boxes, but she knows how the rest of the cell works too.

“Mitochondria break down sugars and make energy,” she said. Stefani Schmidt was part of the team that cobbled together the 20x6x8 cell membrane out of plastic sheeting. “I need to tell you about endo and exocytosis,” she said. “When something needs to go out of the cell it goes in a vacuole, like a bubble made of the same thing as the cell membrane, and when it goes out it joins up with the membrane.”

Apple said making the giant cell fired students’ interest in cell biology. “Each group had to make part of the cell and do a poster. They really got into it,” he said. Apple got the idea for the big cell from a book of science projects. “The way it was described didn’t really work, so with the students, we made it better,” he said.

Once the cell was built, they took other middle school students, their parents and other visitors on tours, teaching them how the cell worked. “DNA has the information to make another one of you,” Melvin Ellis told sixth-grade visitors on a tour, pointing to multicolored ladders of deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA.

Apple said he hopes to make building the big cell an annual project. He already has some ideas to make it better with his next batch of seventh graders.