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Cells and DNA Lesson Plan

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

Edible DNA Model

Edible DNA Model

This is part 1 of a 7 part hands-on unit study on anatomy of the human body. Create edible models of human cells and DNA, look at cheek cells under a microscope, and more! These lessons are geared toward 4th-5th grade level children and their siblings and were used for our weekly homeschool co-op. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 33 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, or co-op!

Just like this sweater was knit from wool with each part having a purpose, our bodies were knit together by God and each part of our bodies has a specific purpose.

Just like this sweater was knit from wool with each part having a purpose, our bodies were knit together by God and each part of our bodies has a specific purpose.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and Introduction to Cells and DNA

1. Pray. Read and discuss Psalm 139:13-16.

2. Point to any clothing item someone is wearing.

  • Quickly ask, “How was this made? What is it made from? What are some of the parts of it and what do they do?” [example: sleeves keep your arms warm, hole in the head allows you to pull it over your head, etc.]
  • Just like this sweater/jacket/etc. was knit/sewn/etc. from wool/yarn/etc. with each part having a purpose, our bodies were knit together by God and each part of our bodies has a specific purpose.
  • In Psalm 139:13-14, David wrote about God, "For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
  • Each of you are fearfully and wonderfully made by God! God didn’t use yarn to make our bodies. He used cells and DNA.

YOU WILL NEED: a sweater, jacket, or other clothing item

3. Read a book about cells and DNA. We read pp. 1-21 of Have a Nice DNA by Fran Balkwill.

YOU WILL NEED: a book about cells and DNA such as Have a Nice DNA by Fran Balkwill

Best Read Aloud Option

Using Legos to show how all living things started as one cell

Using Legos to show how all living things started as one cell

The Basic Unit of Life

4. Use Legos to show how cells are the basic unit of life and how they divide.

  • Hand out a Lego brick to each child.
  • A cell is a basic unit of life. [Show a Lego brick.]
  • ALL living things started out from a single cell. Every single living creation or creature, from a tree to a mushroom to a frog to a dog to us...we all started out as one cell. We'll pretend like each Lego brick is a cell.
  • [Hold up 2 Lego bricks that are together and then break them in half.] The first cell that created you divided in 2 cells.
  • [Repeat the above demo, "breaking" apart 2 Lego bricks.] Those cells keep dividing into 2 cells. It keeps happening over and ever again.
  • [Start collecting the Legos from the children and constructing a simple Lego person.] The cells eventually become specialized. For you, when God was knitting you together in your mother's womb, some of your cells became muscle cells. Some became red blood cells. Some became nerve cells. Some became skin cells.
  • Eventually they become you. Can you guess how many cells came together to make you? You are made up of about 30 TRILLION cells!!!

YOU WILL NEED: Lego bricks that can come together to create a simple-looking person (Practice ahead of time so that you have a general idea of how to create a person from the Lego bricks you'll have. You don't have to use all the Legos you hand out.)

Using a toy to explain how a cell is like a factory

Using a toy to explain how a cell is like a factory

Cells Are Like Factories

5. Ask the children if any of them got a toy for Christmas/their birthday. Tell them that their toys were probably made in a factory. Ask the children to describe what a factory might look like and what jobs might be needed at a factory.

  • Each of your 30 trillion cells are made up of smaller components. Each cell is are just like a factories. Cells are protein-producing factories.
  • Using a similar dialogue and descriptions from the esheet, Cells: A Busy Factory found in the The Cell As a System lesson, compare the way a factory works to the way cells work. The below descriptions come from that esheet.
Coloring in the parts of the cells as we discuss each part and its function

Coloring in the parts of the cells as we discuss each part and its function

  • Show your colored picture of a cell from biologycorner.com. Tell the children that they are going to color their own picture of a cell as you discuss each part. As you mention each part, have the children repeat the name after you. Also, show the pictures of each of the parts of the cell magnified under a microscope from a book. We used "Photographic Atlas of the Body" by Arran Frood, though "The Human Body Close-Up" by John Clancy would be an equally good option.
  • The cell membrane regulates what enters or leaves the cell. It is analogous to the shipping and receiving department of a factory.
  • The nucleus (or the executive department) runs the cell factory and controls all cell activity.
  • The cytoplasm is similar to the factory floor that holds all the workers, machines, and equipment.
  • The cytoplasm holds all the organelles or cell parts.
  • The ribosomes are like the workers in the assembly line who are responsible for building the goods in the factory. Ribosomes build the proteins in the cells.
  • The endoplasmic reticulum is like the assembly line where workers do their work as items move along on a conveyor belt to different parts of the factory. The ER is where the ribosomes do their work, and the ER moves the proteins to different parts of the cell.
  • The golgi apparatus is like the packaging department who puts the created items in their boxes to ship them. The golgi apparatus prepares proteins for use or export.
  • The lysosomes are the janitors or maintenance crew. They are responsible for breaking down and absorbing materials taken in by the cell.
  • The mitochondria is the cell’s power plant is of the cell and produces the cell's energy.

YOU WILL NEED: this picture of a cell printed in color or printed and colored by you ahead of time at the above link (biologycorner.com), a book showing the parts of the cell magnified under a microscope such as "Photographic Atlas of the Body" by Arran Frood or "The Human Body Close-Up" by John Clancy, & items brought by students/families: cell coloring pages and crayons/markers/colored pencils

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The Book We Used to Show the Parts of the Cell Magnified

Dramatizing the Cell Parts and Functions

6. Dramatize the cell parts and their functions.

  • [Call up a group of children and have them stand in a circle. They can hold hands if you'd prefer. If you have a large enough group, have them form a circle around a table, which will be the ER.] The children are the cell membrane. The decide what comes into or what exits the cell.
  • [Show an "empty" box] What's in the box? Oxygen is in the box! Will the cell membrane let oxygen into the cell? Yes!
  • [Pretend to cough a lot into the box.] I'm just pretending, but if I was really sick, what would now be in the box? Yes, germs, bacteria, and maybe viruses. Will the cell membrane let this box in now? No!
  • [Have a child stand in the middle of the circle.] You're the nucleus. You're the "brain" of the cell. You get to tell everyone what to do. Say, "Divide! Reproduce! Make More!"
  • [Have some children stand around a table and hand them toy tools.] Remember that a cell is a protein making factory. We need some workers to make the protein. You are the ribosomes. The ribosomes build the proteins in the cells. Do you know what proteins are? What foods do we eat that have protein? Yes, dairy like milk and cheese, meats like a hamburger, fish, nuts, and seeds. [Lay out some nuts across the table that the "ribosomes" are "building."]
  • Workers do their work as items move along on a conveyor belt to different parts of the factory. Out table here is the endoplasmic reticulum. The ER is where the ribosomes do their work, and the ER moves the proteins to different parts of the cell.
  • [Select one or two children to collect the nuts and put them in a box.] This ois our packaging department, packaging up the proteins the ribosomes make so they can be exported to other parts of the body. They are our golgi apparatus. Make sure to collect all the "protein" nuts!
  • [Hand one or two child a broom.] There's always going to be a mess to clean up. Our janitors or maintenance crew are the lysosomes.
  • [Hand one or more children small candy like a jelly beans or Skittles to pass out to each child for them to eat. The can get a candy as well.] To do all this work, we need energy. Our mighty mitochondria are passing out sugar, glucose, which is what the mitochondria uses to create the cell's energy.
  • Everyone, stomp a few times on the floor. Our floor is the cytoplasm. The jellylike substance that holds all the organelles or cell parts is the cytoplasm.

YOU WILL NEED: a few boxes, toy tools, nuts, 1-2 brooms, & small sugar candy like jelly beans or Skittles

Edible Cell Model

7. Make an edible cell models. [Children can each make their own or you can make one together as a group, allowing each child to have a turn placing something in the bag.]

* Prep if letting each child make their own: Ahead of time lay out items need on a napkin/paper towel for each child. *
*To see the full script of what we said while doing this activity, I have included it toward the bottom of this lesson in Appendix A.*
The plastic bag is the cell membrane.
The jell-o/syrup is the cytoplasm.
The cherry represents the nucleus. The cherry pit represents the nucleolus. The skin of the cherry represents the nuclear membrane.
The sprinkles are the ribosomes.
The gummy worms and the endoplasmic reticulum . (If you want to differentiate Smooth ER and Rough ER, you will need gummy worms with sugar and without sugar on the outside. The ones with sugar on the outside are the ones with ribosomes and are the Rough ER. The ones without sugar on the outside are the Smooth ER.)
Stack the fruit roll-up pieces on top of each other and fold them into an s-shape. This is the Golgi apparatus.
The Skittles are the lysosomes.
The Mike & Ikes are the mitochondria.
-Have teachers/parents assist children in securely closing the bags. Bags containing jell-o should be places in the refrigerator to set.

YOU WILL NEED PER CELL MODEL: 1 plum or cherry without the stem (or a large seeded grape if those are not available), a teaspoon of cookie/cake sprinkles (not colored sugar), 2 gummy worms (can have 1 with sugar and 1 without sugar if you want to have smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum), 3 small match-stick size cut-out strips of fruit roll up, 2 Skittles (or other round candy), 4 Mike & Ike or Hot Tamale candies (or other rod-shaped candy), 1 napkin, and hand sanitizer, & additional items brought by students/families: ziplock quart size bag half full of unset jell-o or Karo syrup


Edible cell model we made using fruit, which is an option if you'd prefer to avoid using candy

Edible cell model we made using fruit, which is an option if you'd prefer to avoid using candy

Healthier Edible Cell Option

Are you hoping to avoid candy? If you'd prefer a recipe that isn't sweet, try making a pizza as seen at doodle blog. She used the pizza crust as the cell wall, ranch dressing & mozzarella for the cytoplasm, a round slice of Canadian bacon for the nucleus, a round slice of onion for the nucleolus, bacon bits for the mitochondria, green peppers for the vacuoles, bacon for the lysomes, onion for the golgi bodies, cheddar cheese for the ribosomes, sliced mushrooms with ribs for the Rough ER, and sliced mushrooms without ribs for the Smooth ER. You can see the photo here by cutting and pasting this link: http://doodlebloghomeschool.blogspot.com/2012/01/edible-animal-cells.html . We have also made edible cells using watermelon and various fruits for each of the organelles.

Looking at Cells Under a Microscope

8. Option 1: Even a basic microscope with a magnification of 40x can allow children to see their cheek cells. Have them gently scrape the inside of their cheek with a flat toothpick and place that part of the toothpick on a clean microscope slide. The cheek cells will be difficult to view unless they are stained. In order to stain them, use a pipette to drop a drop of water over the cheek cells. Carefully place a cover slip on top of the drop of water. Put a drop of food coloring next to the cover slip. Put a small piece of paper towel on the opposite side of the cover slip. It will suck up the water and draw the dye over the cells.

Option 2: Alternatively, you can use prepared slides such as the set below.

Option 3: If you do not have a microscope, you can simply show a picture from the Internet or in a book.

  • Ask, “Can you see all the cell’s organelles, or cell parts, when you magnify it 400 times?” [No.] “What parts can you see?” [Cell membrane, nucleus, and cytoplasm] You would have to magnify the cell about 100,000 times to see all the parts we talked about today! There are microscopes that magnify that much, but they are quite expensive.

YOU WILL NEED: Option 1: microscope, toothpick, pipette, food dye (or buy a more concentrated dye like methylene blue or malachite green from the fish department at a pet store), microscope slide with cover, strip of paper towel, Option 2: microscope with a prepared slide that includes a cell such as a cheek cell, or Option 3: a computer/phone to show the picture of magnified cheek cells found at the above link

9. After children have looked at the cells through the microscope and are waiting for others to finish, allow them to look through books that have photos or illustrations of cells and their parts.

YOU WILL NEED: books that show cells & their parts

Our body's cookbook: DNA

Our body's cookbook: DNA

Our Body's Cookbook: DNA

10. Using a picture of DNA and a cookbook, introduce how DNA is like a cookbook, containing recipes for each cell.

  • Inside each nucleus is 4-6 feet long DNA strands. DNA is like a cookbook, containing recipes for each cell. Every cell has the entire cookbook. It has all the recipes or information for all the cells, but God made them so that they know which one recipe to use in each cell.
  • DNA is found inside the cells of all living things. The structure of the DNA molecule is the same in all living things…but the diversity of life is HUGE.
  • If I had flour, sugar, butter, and eggs, what could I make? (sugar cookies, pound cake, bread, pancakes, candy, etc.) I have the same 4 ingredients, but I could make lots of things, couldn't I?
  • Every cell in your body contains a cookbook for you called DNA that tells it what is should do. DNA stands for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid. Say that with me, “Deoxy...ribo…Nucleic…Acid.” DNA sure is easier to say, isn't it?
  • Even though our DNA uses recipes to make all our body parts (from our skin to our hearts to our brains to our bones), DNA is made up of building blocks called genes. Each gene contains a sugar and a phosphate as well as one of four types of ingredients or base molecules: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine.
  • Our bodies are made up of about 100 trillion cells! How many cells make up our body? (100 trillion)
  • Each cell is an amazing self-contained unit, and yet they all work together to make up one “you.”
  • We began with one cell. Within that one cell was all the information to make you. Your height, eye and hair color, if you can roll your tongue, and much more. God wrote it within your cells.
  • Your one cell began to divide and multiply, and they began to specialize. Some cells became your lungs, others became your hands, others became your heart, and so on.
  • From hair color, to ear shape, to whether or not we will have dimples, God included the directions in our DNA. Every cell has the entire cookbook. It has all the recipes or information for all the cells, but God made them so that they know which one recipe to use in each cell. The DNA only uses the part needed to make the particular type of cell it is.
  • Where do you think the DNA is found in a cell? Within the nucleus of each cell is the recipe, or DNA.
  • All the DNA is squished tightly together in the nucleus of each cell. If it were stretched from end to end, it would reach from the earth to the sun, not one time but 800 times!

YOU WILL NEED: a cookbook and a picture of DNA (from the Internet or from a book)

11. If you're not including the separate lesson on genetics, read The One and Only Me: A Book About Genes by Ariana Killoran.

YOU WILL NEED: The One and Only Me: A Book About Genes by Ariana Killoran or other book on genes

Edible DNA Model

12. Show an edible model of a DNA strand – double helix - Remember that they form pairs in very specific ways: Adenine (A) always pairs with Thymine (T) and Cytosine (C) always pairs with Guanine (G): AT or TA and CG or GC.

  • Make edible models of DNA strands by following the directions at Have Your DNA and Eat It Too.
  • ***Prep: Ahead of time lay out a sandwich bag for each child. In each bag place 2 pieces of licorice, 12 toothpicks, 9 pink marshmallows, 9 yellow marshmallows, 9 green marshmallows, and 9 orange marshmallows.
  • *** Each color of marshmallow will represent one of the four types of chemical bases are: adenine (A) = green, thymine (T) = pink, cytosine (C) = yellow, and guanine (G) = orange.
  • Remember that A always pairs with T and C always pairs with G.
  • They can follow the sequence of T A C G T A T G A A A C by inserting pairs of colored marshmallows on each rung of toothpick and attaching the toothpick to the licorice backbone. (We did not label the DNA.)

YOU WILL NEED PER CHILD: 2 pieces of red licorice, at least 12 toothpicks, at least 9 of each different color of small colored marshmallows (orange, yellow, pink, & green), a napkin, and a sandwich bag [*Tip: one 10 ounce bag of colored miniature marshmallows contains enough for about 10 children.] *If you can't find colored marshmallows, use quartered pieces of Starburst candies.

Each child is assigned a cell.

Each child is assigned a cell.

Cells Come Together to Make Up Tissues

13. Quickly discuss the various types of human body cells. Show pictures of various types of human body cells using pictures from the Internet or from a book such as Photographic Atlas of the Body by Arran Frood.

YOU WILL NEED: pictures of various types of human body cells using pictures from the Internet or from a book such as Photographic Atlas of the Body by Arran Frood

14. Play the Cells to Tissues to Organs to Systems game.

  • When cells that perform the same job gather themselves into shapes that make tissue like the skin, muscles, bones. Tissues are groups of like cells that perform the same function, for example, muscle tissue or bone tissue.
  • The children are each going to become a particular type of cell. They will need to find their partner or partners in order to form tissue. They should look for 1, 2, or 3 other people who have the same word in the same color as what is written on their card. Once they find their partner or partners, they should sit down together.
  • Ask, “What 3 things need to be the same?” [word and color] Ask, “When you find your partner or partners, what will you do?” [sit down together]
  • Pass out cards to each of the children and tell them to become tissues.

YOU WILL NEED: Cell cards: Use quarter sheets of paper or 3X5 index cards and label them as follows: Using a purple marker or crayon write “blood cell” on 2 cards, “nerve cell” on 2 cards, and “muscle cell” on 2 cards. Using a red marker or crayon, write “fat cell” on 4 cards and “blood cell” on 3 cards. Using a blue marker or crayon, write “nerve cell” on 4 cards and “muscle cell” on 2 cards. Using a green marker or crayon write “muscle cell” on 4 cards and “epithelial cell” on 2 cards.

Cells come together to form tissues.

Cells come together to form tissues.

Cells Make Up Tissues

15. When certain cells get together, they form tissues just like you just did. Hold up each of your tissue signs and ask, “Which cells formed [blood/nerve/etc.] tissue?” When the pair or group sees the one that belongs to them (because of the similar name and color), they should raise their hands. Give them the tissue cards.

YOU WILL NEED: Tissue cards: Use half sheets of paper or 4x6 (not 3X5) index cards and label them as follows: Using a purple marker or crayon write “blood tissue” on one card, “nerve tissue” on 1 card, and “smooth muscle tissue” on 1 card. Using a red marker or crayon, write “fat (connective) tissue” on 1 card and “blood tissue” on 1 card. Using a blue marker or crayon, write “nerve tissue” on 1 card and “muscle tissue” on 1 card. Using a green marker or crayon write “smooth muscle tissue” on 1 card and “epithelial tissue” on 1 card.

Tissues come together to form organs.

Tissues come together to form organs.

Tissues Make Up Organs

16. Lay the picture of the tongue at one table, the picture of the liver at one table, the picture of the stomach at one table, and the picture of the small intestine at another table.

  • Tell the children that when certain tissues get together, they form organs such as the liver, lungs, and kidneys.
  • The children are each a cell. They came together to form tissues. Now their tissues are coming together to create organs.
  • Have everyone stand up and step away from the chairs because they are going to switch seats again.
  • Hold up the picture of the tongue. Ask, “Which tissues make up the tongue?” Instruct all the children with blue cards to sit at the tongue table. The tongue, which is an organ, is made of nerve tissue and muscle tissue, which is made of nerve cells and muscle cells.
  • Hold up the picture of the liver. Ask, “Which tissues make up the liver?” Instruct all the children with red cards to sit at the liver table. The liver, which is an organ, is made of blood tissue and fat (or connective) tissue, which is made of blood cells and fat cells.
  • Hold up the picture of the stomach. Ask, “Which tissues make up the stomach?” Instruct all the children with green cards to sit at the stomach table. The stomach, which is an organ, is made of epithelial tissue and smooth muscle tissue, which is made of epithelial cells and muscle cells.
  • Hold up the picture of the small intestine. Ask, “Which tissues make up the small intestine?” Instruct all the children with purple cards to sit at the small intestine table. The small intestine, which is an organ, is made of nerve tissue, smooth muscle tissue, and blood tissue, which is made of nerve cells, muscle cells, and blood cells.

YOU WILL NEED: Organ cards: Print a large picture of a human tongue, liver, stomach, and small intestine from the internet and paste each picture to the specific color of a full-size sheet of construction paper. A picture of a tongue should be on a blue sheet, a picture of a liver should be on a red sheet, a picture of a stomach should be on a green sheet, and a picture of the small intestine should be on a purple sheet. Alternatively, you could simply use 4 sheets of white paper and draw each of the 4 organs using the specified color. You and draw the tongue using a blue marker/crayon, a liver using a red marker/crayon, a stomach using a green marker/crayon, and a small intestine using a purple marker/crayon.

Organs come together to form organ systems.

Organs come together to form organ systems.

Organs Make Up Organ Systems

17. Ask the children, “Cells come together to make what?” [tissues] “Tissues come together to make what?” [organs] Organs come together to make up organ systems.
-There are 11 organ systems that make up your body. They each have a different main function, but they work together to help your body function. Listen closely as I describe each organ system, as I want you to determine which organ system you all make. (As you mention each system, show a picture of the system from a book such as The Human Body by Charles Clayman.)

  • A way to remember each function is to use a mnemonic device. A mnemonic device is when you come up with a silly sentence. The first letter of each word corresponds with the first letter of each of the organ systems. Say this sentence after me: “Each night my unintelligent cat dives into some really rocky lakes.”
  • The E in each reminds us of the endocrine system, which controls your thyroid glands. The N in night reminds us of the nervous system, which is your brain and nerves and acts as your control center. The M in my reminds us of the muscular system, which is all your muscles. The U in unintelligent reminds us of the urinary system (also called the excretory system), which cleans our body of poisons. The C in cat reminds us of the cardiovascular system, which is your heart and veins and is your life pump that keeps your blood flowing. The D in dives reminds us of the digestive system, which involves the organs that take deal with the food you eat. The I in into reminds us of the integumentary system is your skin, hair, and nails and keeps your body from drying out and keeps germs from getting in. The S in some reminds us of the skeletal system, which included all your bones. The R in really reminds us of the respiratory system, which is mainly your lungs and involves the air you breath in and out. The R in rocky reminds us of the reproductive system, which involves making babies. [You might not want to show the picture for this system.] The L in lakes reminds us of the lymphatic system (part of the immune system), which defends our body against germs.
  • Ask, “Which organ system do you make?” [Digestive]
  • Let’s review one more time: Particular cells get together to make up what? [tissues] Particular tissues get together to make up what? [organs] Particular organs work together to make up what? [organ systems] How many organ systems are there? [11] What mnemonic device can we use to remember all 11 organ systems?

YOU WILL NEED: Three sheets of paper that have been taped together on which you have written “Digestive System,” an image of a cat and a lake (shown from your phone or laptop would be fine) & book that shows each of the body’s systems a book such as The Human Body by Charles Clayman

The Book We Used to Shows Each of the Body’s Systems

Review

18. Review what we learned: Our bodies are made up of about 100 trillion of what? (cells) Name a part of a cell and something you learned about it. [Ask at least 6 different children to answer.] What is the cookbook that tells your cells what to do called? (DNA.) Where is the DNA found in a cell? (nucleus) DNA is made up of building blocks called what? (genes) Name one of the chemical base molecules that is an ingredient in DNA. [Ask 2 children.] (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) What is the name for the DNA shape, which looks like a twisted ladder? (double helix) Particular cells get together to make up what? [tissues] Particular tissues get together to make up what? [organs] Particular organs work together to make up what? [organ systems] How many organ systems are there? [11] Name one of the organ systems. [Ask at least 3 children.] What mnemonic device can we use to remember all 11 organ systems? (Each night my unintelligent cat dives into some really rocky lakes.) What was your favorite activity from today? [Ask each of the children.]