Designing Cells: Imagination At Work

By Gloria Allen, February 27, 2017

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Summer Design Institute

Subject Area

  • Science

Lesson Time

5 x 45 minute sessions following researching a range of sources to capture the structures inside cells or organelles both in and outside school.


Cell Biology is a foundation focus for Life Science. Once having explored plant and animal cells through microscopic exploration and research, our guidelines direct us toward the world of structures within the animal and plant cells. Usually there are graphic activities which allow students to evidence their understanding. However,after understanding the concept of an analogy, students will participate in a design challenge where their team will design a city or a school whose inner structures are analogous with the inner functions of a cell or organelles. Our standards indicate that we target specific organelles,hence those are the main ones which will be displayed in the product as either animal or plant.

National Standards

As an adopting “state” for Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we are utilizing those components Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, Science & Engineering Practices Advisory 1 Disciplinary Core Ideas Unit 1: Cells LS1.A: Structure and Function- Within cells, special structures are responsible for particular functions, and the cell membrane forms the boundary that controls what enters and leaves the cell. (MS-¬LS1‐2) Science &Engineering Practices Develop and use a model to describe phenomena.(MS-¬LS1-¬2) Commom Core (integration) ELA/Literacy SL.8.5.-Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence and add interest.(MS-¬LS1‐2)


By the end of the session students would validate the understanding of the functions of the structures of a cell by designing an analogous model of a cell in the form of a city or a school.


Used a range of resources including:
  • Classroom text identifying organelle functions
  • Cell Analogy Project Guidelines.docx
  • Cell Organelles.docx
  • Creativity


  • Cardboard boxes (similar to the case of paper size)
  • Multicolored construction paper/varied sizes
  • Multicolored art paper on a rolls
  • Scissors
  • Regular Tape
  • Wide clear tape
  • Glue
  • Glue stick
  • Handout forms


  1. Cell membrane
  2. Chloroplast
  3. Mitochondria
  4. Organelle
  5. Cell wall
  6. Nucleus
  7. Analogy
  8. Cytoplasm



We actually used our school and our city setting as exemplars to understand the meaning of analogies for structure and function rather than videos for this activity.


After devoting time to researching information, pictures, and websites about organelles of cells, which followed identifying cells, then the design challenge was introduced to: Make a Plan,to Design a Structure, and Create a Key to explain.
  • It was important to introduce, explain, and dialog the words analogy and analogous. Through guided discussion we explored the term and gave examples of analogies.
  • That lead to the explanation that the project design would be an analogy.
  • Each team set would decide if they were to choose to build a model of a city or a model of a school to show how the structures/functions inside the school or city match or are analogous to the structures/functions inside a cell.
  • Each team needed to then work together to decide how to create their choice by drawing a sketch of how they want their choice to look.
  • At the same time, they were shown what their materials would be. The selection of boxes, colors, shapes of structures, colors they would use, tape, glue, scissors were made assess-able each day.
  • There were students who used an earlier mathematics lesson to fold paper into structures. They offered mini folding lessons to the class and left models for other classes to use, since the entire grade level would be engaged in this.
  •  The project was a works in progress as their teams discovered

Discussion Issues:

As teams design their “cell”, ask yourselves how do the function of the structures in the city/school mirror those of a cell? How can we design a city/school to clearly show the alignments between them and a cell. Who had what skills, talents, and ideas.
  • Those who chose to build a school determined that the principal’s office was an analogy for nucleus. Likewise, those building a city decided that the mayor’s office was the nucleus for their structure. So it continued as they referred to their structures of the cell and worked the plans for design
  • Guides were used to inform them all through the design process.
  • Creativity, imagination, and discovery increased each day they worked on the project.
  • As they progressed, all were reminded that they needed 3 products: the plan, the structure, and the key which would guide the observer to understanding the analogy.


  • A working rubric was given at the start of designing their project.
  • There would be a gallery walk to allow all students to view each other’s work. Students decided the components and created value system for that portion of the collective work that all classes used.
  • Other teachers would be invited to judge the projects using the rubric. All projects had numbers not names for fairness.
  • I would submit,yet another assessment for the daily work levels I observed as they worked each 5 days.

Enrichment Extension Activities

As mentioned earlier, other teachers: The Art teachers, the Technology teacher, the Mathematics, our Social Studies 6th grade teacher, as well as our grade level administrator visited and saw all those components represented in the products created by the students. The following items are the evidences of the students' team work showing finished product and the key to allow viewer to understand: To view, click/ctl to open ""IMG_0562.JPG‎ (292 ;                     ""IMG_0563.JPG‎ (199 KB‎) [0562 /structure & 0563 is key] ""IMG_0564.JPG‎ (219 KB‎);              ""IMG_0565.JPG‎ (207 KB‎) [0564/structure & 0565 is key] The very nature of the activity embraces home or community as the students had to collaborate and understand both city designs and or school designs as they worked to design, plan, create, replicate and remain accurate to the challenge of representing the organelles of a cell. Their focus and commitment to the tasks were rewarding, informative, and a validation that learning can be "fun"!

Teacher Reflection

Students worked through many of the words used time and time again. They collaborated, they had to design and re-design, they had to listen to each other and make adjustments. They had daily and regular celebrations with each milestone they reached. To grow from an empty cardboard box into a city or a school was transforming for all level students. They were very excited to have someone come into the room, as that person was given personal tours through the projects. We will do more designs, as this is great opportunity to reflect and strategize.The assessment revealed that this format is an effective alignment for students with a range of skills and abilities. Leadership qualities emerged, artistic talents were shared, conversation was abundant verses listening to a teacher, cooperation became paramount, and a finished visual tangible product validated the success of the teams' work. Less teacher and more student is often a wonderful strategy to steer students toward their own success. This can effectively be guided by a rubric to shape and reward their efforts. The celebration of imagination within the parameters of content and assessment offer good incentives for students. Patterning these steps again would be the goal toward which I would move. Not so much changing the template, but excited to replicate the combination of successes this presented.  

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