For all their evolutionary importance, cells don’t look especially interesting.

In diagrams, they are labeled blobs folded into labeled blobs—here is the cell membrane, the cytoplasm, the nucleus, here are the mitochondria—but the resemblance these Day-Glo abstractions bear to the real world is questionable at best. In their everyday activities, cells don’t stop for portraits; their cytoplasm isn’t neon orange. Under a microscope however, where reality should be closer, the cells are stained but similarly blobby, and under no circumstances would their stillness suggest the mission-driven kinetics that make all life possible.

A "textbook" image of a cell.

In teaching young students about cells, a reverse-engineered approach makes sense: to understand how a cell works, we need to see its components; to see a cell’s components, we need to freeze it in time. But a cell is defined by what it does, not what it looks like. Plant cells, animal cells, blood cells, brain cells: all have specific functions in service of a specific system. Isolating the cell from the system only tells half the story and presents teachers with the prevailing question of how to give these workhorses their due.


Our 4-5 Science team, Ms. Connolly-Sporing and Ms.“Doh” Doherty, have an assignment for that. Outside their classroom, a display on the wall reads “If it were a cell” and features a broad array of images that look nothing like the cell diagrams found in textbooks. Instead, there is a beehive, a horizontal cross-section of a spaceship, a home aquarium, a videogame landscape, all carefully labeled with the parts of a cell that correspond to its functions. In “If a cell were Target,” for instance, 5th-grader Nesta likens a plant cell’s membrane to the sliding doors “because it lets people in.” And the mitochondria, which power the cell, are analogous to the lights “because they are turned on by electricity.”

A student sketch that answers the scientific question, What if a Target store was a cell?

Nesta’s “If a cell were Target,” complete with angry Karen (bottom right).

Broken down like this, a cell’s internal processes are much easier to consider holistically. If the sliding doors at Target fail, a Karen—or a nasty, ill-meaning customer—might get in and “hurt the store.” Similarly, if something happens to the walls of a plant cell, the entire organism is susceptible to damage. “By choosing a large-scale scenario to assign organelle jobs,” Ms. Connolly-Sporing explains, “the students had to really understand the roles.”

The map from Among Us drawn as a cell from a Lesson Plan on teaching cells to elementary students.

4th-grader Miles’s “If a cell were the Skeld,” or the first map in the social game “Among Us.” Here, the “lysosome is the impostor because it helps break down the crewmates.” Sounds pretty sus.

In this lesson on teaching about cells, this is a student drawing of a beehive "if it were a cell."

5th-grader Benji’s “If a cell were a beehive” outlines the similarities between the two in great detail, even incorporating the beekeeper (whose hand appears at left): “The beekeeper is like the golgi body, which packages proteins inside the cell before they are sent outside. Beekeepers package the honey and transport it to new locations.”


There’s also plenty of space in teaching this lesson on cells to extrapolate how the cell itself contributes to a larger, interconnected system, and to see how breakdowns in parts of the system can echo throughout its whole. Challenges to a single Target store may, at first, only affect that store, but if a store continues to struggle, the franchise may also show signs of strain. If a franchise struggles, our economy may take on stress in kind. It’s no different with plants: an assault on one cell wall might mean the damage is contained to a single plant, or even a single leaf. But if multiple parts of the plant fall victim to the same cell wall failure, the plant’s chances of survival become more tenuous.

It’s a grim simulation that works just as well in the opposite direction: success of a single plant cell (or Target store, or beehive) portends success of the larger system. And so the success of “If it were a cell.” Having completed this project, our Lower School students have moved onto wet-mounting cheek cells onto microscope slides. Ms. Connolly-Sporing and Ms. Doh’s students already understand that they are only looking at a moment in time, at things as they were a minute—or a lifetime—ago, before its fellow cells took over in their endless quest for survival.

Thank you to

Annie Connolly-Sporing and Catie Doherty for their gracious help with this article, especially as I kept asking them whether it accurately described “how to Science.” — S.B.P.

If you have a curious child or student interested in cells, check out this video from Dr. Alex Dainis on Why Red Blood Cells Look Like Donuts.

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