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5 Ways to Make Cell Structure A More Approachable Topic

Akanksha Saxena
Teaching with Labster

Introduction: Cell Structure

Life on Earth exists in various forms ranging from single-celled bacteria to multicellular human beings. This variety has captivated scientists and biologists through the ages. When the basis of all life that exists on the planet came to be known as a ‘cell’, different studies to learn further about this mysterious entity began!

Cells are the most basic entity of biological life. Whether it’s a plant, an animal, a fungus, or a bacterium, every living organism is constituted of cell/s. As the scientific quest began, different types of cells were identified, all coming under the umbrella of 2 major categories; prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. Organisms like plants, animals, fungi, etc are known as eukaryotes because their bodies are constituted by eukaryotic cells. On the contrary, bacteria are prokaryotes.

These 2 major categories of cells are differentiated on many bases. The major basis of differentiating prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells is “cell structure”. 

When students are first introduced to the different types of cells or cell structures, each terminology is quite foreign to them. To expect students to understand mitochondria, Golgi body, cytoskeleton or nucleoid would be too much to ask for at this point.

Then how do educators explain the cell structures to young learners?

How do they make young learners comfortable with the idea of cell organelles, propositions of cell theory, and differences between the 2 cell types?

What is the hurdle in learning the roles of mitochondria by heart??

These are some pertinent questions faced by educators taking lectures on this subject. And we know how difficult it must be for you to introduce such a complex topic to students who don’t have any idea about any of this. So, we attempt here to simplify it for you. We list out the major complications that students report when learning cell structures for the first time. Further, we also provide some practical and workable solutions that educators can use in their next classes to overcome those complications. We hope this article bridges the existing gap and brings your students more joy than despair when cell structures are taught to them. At last, we’ll also share why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful for delivering more comprehensive and insightful lectures on the subject.

Why can the Cell Structure be tricky to teach or learn?

There are 3 reasons why students are apprehensive about the topic of cell structures. Acknowledging these roadblocks is the first step toward making the topic more approachable.

1. The idea of cell structures is novel to students

Educators need to understand that the idea of cell structures and cells themselves is very new to students. Till this point, they only knew that plants and animals are superficially different and have their quirks. But they never knew why a plant cell has a ‘cell wall’ and why there’s no need for the same in animal cells. Though students have always known that plants are stationary while animals can move and escape extremely harsh environmental conditions, it never occurs to most students what enables a plant to escape the harsh conditions without moving from its place.  

explore cell structure virtual lab 2

Figure: A snippet from the Cell Structure simulation by Labster showing the specificity of the cell wall to certain types of cells. It is available for School and University/College classes.

2. The topic is heavy on content

The topic of cell structures is full of details and new terminologies. This can be one of the primary reasons that overwhelm the students. Hearing new terminologies like the nucleus, ER, cytoskeleton, Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, ribosomes, mitochondria, etc, and not knowing why they constitute the cell structures of some cells and not of some others could be crushing for students. With so much information at their disposal students fail to comprehend and sort it according to their relevance and research needs.

3. Lack of interactive learning options

Students frequently express their boredom with the theoretical ideas of cell theory. They feel the need to have more visualization tools where they can actively learn about cell structures. Memorizing a long list of organism-specific organelles looks like a taxing job that no student likes. Moreover, within a multicellular organism like animals or plants, there are different types of cells and their internal structures are different to suit their respective roles. Students tend to be confused when such complexity is introduced only by textual means.

5 ways to make Cell Structure a more approachable topic to understand

To address the complications listed above, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their next classes. These can shed light on how to handle the complex topic of cell structures. These tips and tricks can ease your work and help you in delivering more efficient lectures. 

1. Start with the basics

It is the most important advice we give to educators dealing with cell structures. It is needed that before a student jumps onto a complex topic, you first explain to them the smaller fundamental topics. We list a few of them for you.

  • Introduce what cells are and their importance for the existence of biological life.

  • Introduce the cell theory and its 3 tenets. 

  • Talk about each tenet in detail; discuss how all life forms on the planets are constituted by the same basic unit called a cell. Explain how this basic unit is the structural, functional, and fundamental unit of life, no matter what type of life it is.

  • Discuss how all unicellular and multicellular organisms arise from pre-existing cells. Whether it is a unicellular bacteria or algae or it’s a multicellular whale or fungus, each one of them has arisen from some cells that already existed. 

  • Introduce the topic of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells highlighting the major differences in their structures.

In-depth discussions on these fundamental topics reduce the likelihood that your students won't be able to comprehend the more difficult subjects. This will also save you time in later classes when you talk about specific cell organelles. 

explore cell structure mini game

Figure: A snippet from the Cell Structure simulation by Labster where your students can engage in a minigame and learn about different cell organelles. It is available for School and University/College classes.

2. Try to humanize the science behind the discovery of cell structures

Students often tend to believe that scientific discoveries are made by super-humans which is not true. To make them comfortable with the idea of discoveries and inventions, you must help them see how cumulative efforts in research labs and utter perseverance can help them to manifest any idea that they dream about.

Introduce the stories of scientists who aimed for nothing less than excellence and left the world spellbound with their science. 

Story of Robert Hooke: One such amazing story is of Hooke, the scientist who discovered and described “cells” for the first time in the history of science. When Hooke understood the potential of the microscopy technique, he relentlessly worked on his microscope to improve its resolution. His persistent efforts were paid well when his microscope with 3 lenses and a stage light finally enabled him to observe the honey-comb structure of cells. While observing the cork under his microscope, he described the presence of some tiny pores which he termed “cells” resembling the ‘cells in a monastery. This little story about the discovery of cells can be enthralling and motivating for your students as you teach them the cell structure.

On the same note, you can introduce your students to the works and contributions of several other scientists who discovered various cell organelles in pursuit of their scientific excellence.

3. Engage them in discussions requiring them to think critically

Students should be encouraged to think more objectively when they learn about cell structures. Rather than rote learning the list of different cell organelles in the cells, they should understand the functions of those organelles. When they know the precise role of ‘chloroplasts’ in the photosynthesis process, it becomes easier to remember the presence of these organelles only in the cells of green plants. Likewise, you can explain the roles of different cell organelles like Golgi bodies, endoplasmic reticulum, ribosomes, nucleus, etc. Help them navigate their way to place different cell organelles under different categories of cells.

In the same manner, you can educate them about the specialization of cells in complex organisms like human beings, plants, animals, etc. Associating different structures of cells to their specific roles will further enhance the rational placement of each organelle in different types of cells of the same organism.

4. Use more colorful and interactive tools 

Theoretical lessons on cell structures could be taxing and boring for students. The topic is already very complex and full of information. To make the topic easy to understand for students while also ensuring that they are engrossed in your class, the use of more interactive and engaging tools is recommended. Educators are advised to use colorful images, illustrations, 3D models, concise infographics, presentations, and simulations to make the classes lively. 

Demonstrating how cell functions using videos and simulations can prove even more beneficial. When students witness different cell organelles working in synchrony with each other in the eukaryotic cell or when they see the marvel of prokaryotic cells that functions stupendously with minimal cell structures, they are bound to appreciate the science behind cell structures.

structure of cell membrane

Figure: Structure of cell membrane. Image Source

Eukaryotic Cells

Figure: Structure of eukaryotic animal cells. Image Source 

5. Use virtual lab simulations

We understand how the lack of tools and systems can trouble educators in delivering insightful lessons on this subject of cell structures. The dearth of demonstrative videos and informative flowcharts pushes educators to work overtime to develop their tools for the subject. Moreover, the topic is quite novel for students and usually portrays challenges that educators struggle with.

We, at Labster, understand these issues faced by both students and teachers. Therefore, we encourage modern-day educators to make the most of the Cell Structure simulation. It takes your students into a virtual world where they can understand how different types of cells are constituted. They can engage with the unique mini-game in the simulation and learn which cell organelle goes into which cell type. With virtual laboratory simulations from Labster, teachers can make more insightful points as students are rendered with better visual options where they can follow the different concepts in a free-flowing manner. 

Your students don’t have to struggle anymore as our interactive Cell Structure simulation along with gamification elements will help you. By using this way of active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”. 

cel GIF cell structure

Figure: A snippet from the Cell Structure simulation by Labster where your students can engage in a minigame where they can place the organelles specific to bone cells (osteocytes) and learn about their specific roles in these cells. It is available for School and University/College classes.

You can learn more about the Cell Structure simulation here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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