Diffusion is a topic that is covered in biology (when we introduce cell membranes) and chemistry (particle movement and kinetic theory). I came across this "smelly balloons" activity on Flinn's website and thought it was such a fun way to introduce diffusion. In this activity, students will smell balloons that have different flavor extracts inside. Their task is to guess the scent and explain particle movement. How is the smell passing through the latex barrier? (Note: Prior to this activity you will need to make sure none of your students have latex allergies. Bust out those lab safety contracts they signed at the beginning of the year!)
For this activity you will need:
- Balloons (an assortment of colors is ideal)
- Eyedroppers or pipettes
- A variety Flavor extracts* or different odor substances
- String and tape (optional)
*Flinn's directions say to use a variety of flavor extracts. Flavor extracts can be pricey, so if you don't have very many at home you have some other options. You can use essential oils, perfume, or cooking spices. I used vanilla extract, lemon extract, eucalyptus oil, and cinnamon (mixed with a little bit of water to make a slurry).
Viewing stomata is a fun one-day lab during your photosynthesis or plant unit. The first time I had students do this lab, I got out razor blades (I know) and tried to have students cut off thin slices of the leaf. Needless to say it didn't work out terribly well. Here is a much easier (and safer!) method to view stomata.
You will need:
I generally show students up on the board what stomata look like because they are often confused as to what they are looking at. Since the slide is tape and not a wet mount, there will be air bubbles students need to ignore. I tell them to look for round mouth-like structures (see the image below).
It would be a fun extension activity to have students look at different leaf types and compare the size of the stomata.
If you would like a free powerpoint I created for this lesson, click here to download it. Enjoy!
One of my favorite parts of the cell unit is teaching about membranes. If you ask me, they are by far the most important part of the cell. Everything the cell does is because it is responding to signals received by the membrane. While many students think the nucleus is in charge, it is in fact the membrane that is directing cell processes. (You can read a blog post about why the cell membrane is more of the control center than the nucleus by clicking HERE).
There are a ton of lab options you can do for students to understand the structure and properties of the cell membrane. Check out these 10 resources you can implement in your classroom:
MEMBRANE PROPERTIES & STRUCTURE
1. Visualizing the Membrane: Using analogies really helps students visualize the cell membrane in their head. I read this analogy a few years ago in a book by Dr. Bruce Lipton and have been using it ever since. I tell the students the cell membrane is like a bread and butter sandwich. If I poured water on top of the sandwich, what would happen? Students can recognize that the water would only soak through the bread and stop at the butter layer. Since students already learned about lipids being hydrophobic from our macromolecule unit we circle back to that discussion. Click here if you would like to check out a worksheet that goes with this analogy.
2. Bubble Lab: Who doesn't love to play with bubbles?! Bubbles are a fun way to examine properties of membranes because they are similarly made of molecules that have a hydrophobic side and a hydrophilic side. In this lab students learn how membranes are flexible, can self repair, how materials move in and out, and more. Materials are inexpensive and the fun is endless. You can find it FREE HERE.
3. Interactive Website: Check out this interactive from PBS where students click and learn how molecules pass through the cell membrane.
MEMBRANE TRANSPORT (Many of these labs demonstrate the same concepts. Pick one or two that you like!)
4. Carrot lab: This lab is great for middle school students to understand osmosis. In this activity, students will soak a baby carrot in fresh water and salt water overnight and observe any changes to it's physical appearance and mass. (You can use celery, potatoes, or any other vegetables you have on hand). I prefer using vegetables over gummy bears (Which is a teacher favorite) because vegetables are actually made out of cells.
5. Egg Lab: In this classic lab, students dissolve an egg shell with vinegar and are able to observe a "naked" egg. Once the shell is dissolved you can soak the eggs in different liquids such as distilled water or corn syrup and observe the effects on the egg size and mass. This lab is fun, but I don't do it every year because there are always messy casualties. You can read more specific directions HERE.
6. Dialysis tube lab: In this ADI lab, students need to design an experiment to determine the effect of solute concentration on the rate of osmosis. (Note: ADI labs are available for free online, but the hard copy books must be purchased if you want the answer key). This is a great lab for high school students who are ready to think critically and design their own experiment. Sugar can also be used instead of salt. When I had students complete this experiment I pre-mixed the solute concentrations and we discussed how dialysis tubing works but had students figure out their own experimental set up. Dialysis tubing can be purchased from science suppliers or is also available on Amazon.
7. Onion Skin Lab: Have you already taught students how to use microscopes? If so, this lab is fool-proof. In this lab, students observe a thin layer of purple onion under the microscope. They make wet mounts with fresh water and salt water, and observe what happens to cells placed in a hypertonic environment. You can read a blog post with some tips HERE. It's great because it's easy (no dye needed) and really inexpensive.
8. Osmosis Tonicity Worksheet: I created this quick 2 page worksheet to use as a formative assessment before I tested students on osmosis. It includes a handful of scenarios and students have to identify how the cells will respond and if the solution is hypertonic, hypotonic, or isotonic. You can download it here.
9. Amoeba sisters: Do you want to enrich your lesson with some videos? Amoeba sisters videos on youtube are great for review and reinforcement. There are two video clips that cover topics relating to the cell membrane, one titled "Inside the cell membrane" and another titled "Cell Transport."
Don't forget that many of the amoeba sisters videos have worksheets to accompany the lesson. They can be found here.
10. Cell membrane close reading: One thing students tend to struggle with is understanding how the cell receives and responds to signals. When we use the term "environment" students think about the outdoors... but the environment for a cell is the conditions inside our bodies. I wrote this close reading article to help students understand how the cell receives and responds to signals, and how genes can be turned on and off. It is a great segue into genetics because it introduces the topic of epigenetics.
I hope you have a great cells unit and your students have a blast with some of these labs!
Getting out the microscopes is one of the best parts of teaching biology. I love hearing the ooh's and aah's when they finally get the specimen into focus. But if you've taught biology before you know it can also be one of the most exhausting units- constantly running around the room because "Mrs, I just don't see anything!" or they end up drawing dust, air bubbles, or their eyelashes. After a decade of tweaking my microscope unit, I've come up with some tips to help save your sanity.
1. Don't get them out until it makes sense.
While it may be tempting to get microscopes out the first week of school, it just doesn't make sense. If you aren't going to use them regularly until later in the year, why are you teaching them the names of the microscope parts in week 1? They will forget the information and you will find yourself reteaching. Hold off until you get to cells (or whichever unit you need them regularly).
2. Make sure they know the names of all the microscope parts.
It can be really frustrating when you are trying to help a student, tell them to adjust the fine focus, and they look at you like you are speaking another language. Because of this I don't let students start using the microscope until they can tell me the names of all the parts. We take notes on it and I give them a short quiz at the beginning of the unit. If you want to check out the worksheets I use for teaching parts of the microscope, click here.
3. Try a virtual lab first
Virtual labs are a way to provide students extra practice on the methods of using a microscope before getting out the real deal. Extra practice never hurts, especially for your SPED or ELL students who would really benefit from some visual practice. Check out this site from University of Delaware.
4. If your scopes have a single ocular, teach them which eye to use.
The microscopes in my room have a single ocular lens, so students often ask me which eye to use. This video shows an easy and quick way to teach them which of their eyes is dominant.
5. Start with prepared slides.
I always begin with prepared slides. I put 4 different prepared slides at each lab group, and have students practice focusing and drawing. The first day of prepared slides you will hear a lot of "I don't see anything!" but eventually they get the hang of it. Not all of your students are going to be great artists, but I make sure they know when they turn in their drawings they must a) be drawn to scale, and b) be neat. No scribbles allowed. I should be able to look at the drawing and easily tell what slide it is. I use these lab templates for prepared slides. Don't have access to prepared slides? You can make your own! Check out this blog post on how to easily make a classroom set.
6. Encourage peer help
There is only 1 of you and 30 students. It is physically impossible for you to be running around helping every single student. One day when I was about to rip my hair out I made this poster and hung it up on the whiteboard. Students were not able to call me over for help unless they had checked all of these items off the list. Most of the time their neighbor can help them resolve the issue before you need to be called over. If they still needed help after going down the checklist, then they could call me over. It has helped greatly! You can download this for free in my TpT store here.
7. After they have mastered prepared slides, then move on to wet mounts
Wet mounts can be much more exciting than prepared slides because you can have students look at their own cells (if your school allows you to do a cheek cell swab) or watch microorganisms swimming around. Protists are an absolute blast to watch, but students need to have mastered focusing the microscope and scanning relatively quickly in order to see the protozoa zooming around. You don't have to spend money ordering protists from a supply company, you can easily get your own culture going. Check out this blog post on how to set up a hay infusion. During this lab, I allow students to take pictures or videos with their phones. It takes a steady hand, but they can line up their smart phones with the ocular and get a decent video.
It can be really frustrating when the bell is about to ring and students try to walk out of the classroom without cleaning up. General microscope clean up procedures should include:
a) Removing your slide and returning it to where the teacher directs
b) Turn the objective to low power
c) Turning off the light
d) Putting the dust cover back on
e) If you are putting microscopes away for the day, unplugging and winding the cord around the arm.
I have this poster hanging on my microscope cabinet- it is a freebie from my friend Bethany Lau. You can find it in her TpT store.
Don't have a class set of microscopes? Check out some alternative options.
I hope these tips help your microscope unit run more smoothly! Have fun!
Why are cells so small? And why are we made of so many? It seems like it would be easier to be made of 100 or even 1,000 cells instead of trillions. One of the reasons we teach students that cells are small is because they need a large surface area to volume ratio. The larger the ratio, the more efficient the cell is at moving materials in and out of the cell.
I've seen cell size labs that use different sized agar cubes prepared with a pH indicator. The cubes start pink and lose their color as they soak. (Here is a free version from Flinn if you are feeling ambitious!) Frankly with 3 preps a day this year, I didn't have the time or energy to pour agar cubes. Instead I found a quick and easy way for students to see the same concept- using beets and bleach.
In this experiment, cut different sized beet cubes, a small, a medium, and a large. The students soak the cubes in bleach for roughly 30 minutes (I had them doing some practice SA:V calculations while they waited). Tip: if you use tupperware containers with lids you won't have to smell bleach fumes all day, or you can put parafilm over the beakers.
After 30 minutes of soaking, students remove the beets, cut them open, and measure the amount of red pigment remaining. It is an easy way to see that small cells are more efficient at moving materials in and out. If you are interested in seeing the lab write-up I wrote, you can view it here.
I hope your students enjoy it!
I'm excited to share with you an EASY PEASY way for students to see osmosis in plant cells! In the past, I always used elodea leaves for this lab. Elodea can be hard to find at pet stores and is a little temperamental to keep alive. This year I decided to use onion skin from a purple onion and we got awesome results!
I used this lab BEFORE I taught any vocabulary such as osmosis, equilibrium, hypertonic, hypotonic, or isotonic. I wanted students to visually see what happens to cells in fresh water vs. salt water before I threw any vocabulary at them. Students were really excited to see the cells change within a matter of 60 seconds. Here are a few tips when doing this lab for the first time:
1. You cannot use the dry layers of the onion skin. You need to use the very top of the purple fleshy layer. It can be a little bit tricky to get a specimen that is thin enough, so I decided to do it myself and hand each kid a piece. I took metal tweezers, gently pushed them under the purple layer, and slid the tweezers out so a small flap of onion skin was loose. I peeled it off, handed it to each kid, and they set up their own wet mounts. No dye needed!
2. Have students make drawings using fresh water first. After they finished their drawing, they switched to salt water. To do this they do not need a new piece of onion, just leave it directly on the slide. Add a drop or two of salt water directly to the slide, no need to pre-soak the onion. Make sure your salt water solution is pretty saturated.
3. Tell students to wait at least 2 minutes before drawing the salt water image, because sometimes it takes a little time for the cytoplasm to shrivel up. Below are images of the onion cells in fresh water (left) and salt water (right) on 100x magnification. We had a discussion on whether or not the cell wall shriveled as well. Students automatically said yes, because the cell wall is almost transparent and harder to see. Once I told them to switch to high power (400x) they were able to see the cell wall more clearly and realize that the cell walls were still intact, while the membrane and cytoplasm shriveled.
Tomorrow we are going to follow up with the discussion of what happened and why. Students will take notes on osmosis and we will relate it to real world situations such as: Why can't I drink salt water if I'm stranded on a boat in the ocean? Why is my contact lens solution saline instead of pure water? Why do grocery stores spray the produce with water? If you want a quick worksheet to use as a formative assessment to follow this lesson, check out my tonicity and osmosis worksheet in my TpT store HERE.
I hope your students enjoy the lab as much as mine did! Other than having my classroom smell like onion for a day, it was a total win! Want more ideas? Check out this blog post that has 10 resources for teaching cell membranes!
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As fun as prepared slides are, students always LOVE looking at living organisms under the microscope. I generally order mixed protist specimens from Wards or Carolina Biological, but this year I didn't get an order put in on time (if your district is like mine it often takes months to get things ordered and delivered...) Since I didn't have anything for my students to look at, I decided to make a hay infusion. It turned out great for what I needed.
Overall, here are the pros and cons of doing a hay infusion:
Before using the hay infusion, have your students practice using the microscope with prepared slides. If students are comfortable with how to focus and scan, it makes it much easier when they are looking for things that are swimming around. We began the class with learning how to set up a wet mount slide using an elodea leaf. Once they got the hang of it, they cleaned their slide and took a sample of the pond water.
Here is a video I took under 40x magnification:
and 100x magnification:
Although there weren't a variety of species to see, students were still pretty excited to see them swimming around. I wasn't able to identify which type of protists we had- if you had honors or AP students it might be fun to give them a protist dichotomous key and see if they can figure out which species they find. Overall it was a success and didn't cost me a cent!
Why the nucleus isn't King of the castle
Ever since middle school when students learn about cells, they are taught that nucleus is the control center of the cell. They hear that the nucleus is "the brain" and in charge of all cell functions. When teachers do the cell-as-a-factory analogy, the nucleus ends up being the boss. This is not technically true... while the nucleus houses all the information the cell needs to complete different tasks, it isn't in charge of when that information is used. We need to make sure students understand why cells do the things they do, and it all comes down to cell signaling.
Cells complete cellular processes when the cell membrane gets a signal from the outside environment. Once the signal is received, then the cell will respond by using the genetic information in the nucleus to carry out the task. That task will generally keep going until the signal is terminated. Here are a few examples:
How to get students thinking:
This can be a tricky concept to introduce to students. High school students don't usually understand how the cell operates as a whole and communicates with the outside environment. A great way to introduce the topic is by posing them these questions: "Are identical twins truly identical? Is it possible for one twin to get cancer while the other does not get cancer?" Most students will say yes, this is possible. But if they have the same genes, how can this be? Our cells are not pre-programed to behave based on our DNA. Genes are only regulated based on signals from the environment. Many students also get confused when we talk about "the environment," because they are so used to hearing this term used in ecology. Make sure students understand that the cell has its own environment within the body.
The moral of the story:
Do you want your students to read an article on this topic? Check out this close reading article I wrote available in my TpT store. It is a 3 page article with reading comprehension questions at the end for students to answer. The article covers an overview of: proteins and the central dogma, the lipid bilayer, and epigenetics. It does not cover the details of the types of cell signaling. I believe it is written at a level where most high school students can fully understand the concept of cell signaling and the cell membrane.
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Would you like lab ideas for teaching about the cell membrane? Check out this blog post!
One comment I frequently hear from biology teachers is "My students keep mixing up mitosis and meiosis." I had this problem for many years (the first 5 years of teaching to be exact). During my cells unit I would teach both mitosis and meiosis. I would begin by teaching them both separately, and then had worksheets and activities that compared the two. But when I would give the unit test, it was clear the students still confused the two. I needed to do something differently.
After teaching middle school for 5 years, I switched to a high school near my house. When we got to the cells unit one of my colleagues suggested only teaching mitosis, and waiting to teach meiosis until we got to the genetics unit. Light bulbs kept going off in my head. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
So I tried it. At the end of my cells unit (after teaching organelles, membranes, and cellular energy) I would teach mitosis. When I would test them just on mitosis they would score well, because they didn't have both processes in their head to get confused. Then, after Christmas break when we got to genetics, I would teach meiosis. It made so much sense because:
By the time I quizzed the students on meiosis they were experts on cell division. If your school gives you some freedom with the order of your curriculum, try teaching it this way! You won't regret it.
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BONUS! If you want a fun way to make sure students understand the differences between mitosis and meiosis, try this FREE bingo game in my TpT store! Bingo is a great way to review scientific vocabulary. In this game you will call out the definitions and students will cover up the words on their bingo cards. You can download this product free in my TpT store HERE. Enjoy!
Every teacher has that one unit they don't like to teach. For me, it was cells. Having taught every grade from 6th to 12th, it seemed like no matter how hard I tried, the same thing happened every year. I taught organelles, students memorized them for a test, and then completely forgot about them. Later when I taught mitosis and would ask "Hey, remember centrioles?" I would get blank stares. But what was even more frustrating was the fact that students just didn't get how organelles worked together. I tried everything I found on the internet. I tried the "cell is like a factory" analogies. I tried to have students make cell models out of clay or food. I had them make posters. I even had them write me a "tour through the cell" book (inspired by the magic school bus). And guess what? None of it really worked. Sure, students would come in with really cool jello models and beatiful posters, but if I asked "How do the endoplasmic reticulum and golgi work together?"..... more blank stares.
After 9 years of teaching cells, I was ready to cry. Then one day I was venting to a professor at a local university and he said he had his students group their flashcards together and lay them out like dominoes. Inspiration hit! Why couldn't I have my students link them together like puzzle pieces? I immediately got to work.
I made a list of all the organelles my students needed to know. I decided to make 2 versions of the activity since I teach multiple levels of biology. In the first version (picture on left), I linked two organelles together, and students would have to write out the relationship between them on the connecting puzzle piece. To make it harder for my honors students, I would have them figure out which organelles go together on their own (picture on right).
For the second version, I had students lay them out on butcher paper and connect as many puzzle pieces as possible. They called me over to check before gluing. What was great about this activity was that every group had a different final product, but all of them had correct answers. By the end of the activity (it took them 2 class periods) they had a much greater understanding of which organelles worked directly together and why. (Insert happy dance here). Students also took pictures of their posters and used them as a study tool before the test. So if you were as frustrated as me, kiss your cell factory goodbye and check out my lesson plan HERE.
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