Cells, the building blocks of all known life, have many similar features with some specific differences based on cell function.
Creating cell models helps students visualize cells and helps teachers evaluate a student's understanding of cell structures.
Follow Project Directions
The complexity and details required in a model depend on the grade level and the teacher's directions. The project might specify creating an animal cell model or might require building a plant cell model. Or, the assignment might require a specific type of cell, like a nerve cell or a red blood cell.
The project directions should provide a list of cell organelles (structures within or part of the cell) or reference a source to identify which cell parts must be included in the model.
The project will probably require labels or a key to identify the cell parts. The project might require specific colors for specific cell parts. For example, the chloroplasts in a plant cell model most likely will have to be green to represent the green chlorophyll they contain.
Review the directions carefully. Ask questions. Follow the project directions. Successful completion of the project includes meeting the assignment due date. Don't wait for the last minute.
Models represent objects that may be too big, like the solar system, or too small, like cells or atoms, to construct at their actual size. Model implies being three dimensional (abbreviated 3D) rather than a drawing. Computer models like Cells Alive! may also be used to represent objects.
Sometimes animal cell projects (or plant cell projects) require special materials like being edible or not using materials that can stain, stink or rot. Some teachers may allow original computer models while others may not. Again, be sure to follow directions and, if necessary, ask for clarification.
General Directions to Make a 3D Cell Model
Animal cell models are usually somewhat spherical. A half Styrofoam ball will work.
Other choices could be a paper mâché hemisphere (form around a bowl, ball or balloon; let dry completely) or half of an old volleyball, basketball or soccer ball.
In the cell, the organelles float in cytosol, the liquid material that fills the cell. Cytoplasm refers to the combined organelles and cytosol.
If using a Styrofoam hemisphere, then paint the flat surface a light color or cover with paper. For the paper mâché or ball section, add the organelles first and cover with plastic wrap or cellophane at the end.
Represent a simple cell membrane with clear cellophane or plastic wrap. If required (or extra credit), represent the more correct double layer of the cell membrane with bubble wrap or a double layer of cellophane or plastic wrap.
Or use one or two layers of cheesecloth or a coarsely woven fabric to represent the cell membrane.
Represent vesicles, the pores that aid entrance and exit of larger molecules, with glass head pins stuck through the cell membrane into the cell structure. Or glue sequins, small stickers or hole-punch dots on the cell membrane.
The nucleus is the largest organelle in the animal cell. Use a tennis or similar ball to represent the nucleus. Place in a sandwich bag to represent the nuclear membrane.
The organelles added depend on the assignment requirements.
Endoplasmic reticulum: Represent these long looping structures with wire-edged craft ribbon which can be folded into shapes. Or use a long balloon, the kind used to make balloon animals.
Ribosomes: Use small beads, all one color, to represent these small spherical organelles. Most will be close to the endoplasmic reticulum, but some should be scattered throughout the model (not the nucleus).
Mitochondria: Batteries could represent mitochondria (for safety purposes, consider using pictures cut from an advertisement).
Golgi body: Use walnut or pecan halves or their shells to represent these oval structures with the convoluted inner structure.
Cytoskeleton: Microtubules, microfilaments and intermediate filaments provide a skeletal framework in the cell. Pipe cleaners of different sizes can model these cell structures.
Cell wall (plant cell model): Use a box rather than a spherical container. The cell membrane goes inside the box and the rest of the cytoplasm inside the cell membrane.
Chloroplasts (plant cell model): Use green beads or marbles, larger than ribosomes, to represent chloroplasts. Most chloroplasts occur along the inside of the cell membrane, but some will be scattered through the cytosol.
Central vacuole (plant cell model): Use an appropriately sized baggie filled with air or crumpled plastic wrap. The large vacuole should be larger than the nucleus.
The model will be incomplete without labels or a key. Labels can be done using toothpicks with the names of the cell parts attached like flags. If the model size permits, name tags can be attached directly to each part.
A key using numbers or colors may be required to identify and explain each cell part.
Making an Edible 3D Cell Model
An edible 3D model can be made using cake or gelatin. Use various fruits and candies to represent the different organelles found in the cell.
Again, follow the directions of the assignment to reach a successful outcome.
About the Author
Karen earned her Bachelor of Science in geology. She worked as a geologist for ten years before returning to school to earn her multiple subject teaching credential. Karen taught middle school science for over two decades, earning her Master of Arts in Science Education (emphasis in 5-12 geosciences) along the way. Karen now designs and teaches science and STEAM classes.