Learn About Cells the Fun and Easy Way!
You don't need to be an award-winning painter, baker, or sculptor to create an awesome 3D cell model for science class—and have FUN while doing it!
In this step-by-step guide, you'll find a complete list of plant and animal cell organelles, suggestions for edible and non-edible project materials, how-to videos, and photos of cell models to inspire you.
Whether you're building this model for science class, a science fair, or a homeschool project, your 3D cell model is sure to impress.
Let's get started!
Step-by-step kits that come with everything you need:
- Plant Cell Model Kit STEM Activity for Kids DIY Homeschool - Etsy
- Animal Cell Model Kit STEM Activity for Kids DIY Homeschool - Etsy
Short on time but not interested in a kit? Here's everything you need to create an A+ cell model in one place.
- Plant & Animal Cell Model Supplies and Resources
I've put together an Amazon Idea List that has everything you need to build any type of cell model -- all in one place! Most items are under $10 but you can save even more money by splitting the cost of supplies with a friend or classmate.
Step 1: Choose Plant Cell vs. Animal Cell
First and foremost, you must decide whether you will create a plant or animal cell.
Plant cells and animal cells are shaped differently and contain different parts.
The best way to decide? Take a look at some cell diagrams on an interactive site like Cells Alive. This site offers awesome animations of both plant and animal cells with descriptions of each organelle.
Step 2: Choose Edible vs. Non-Edible Model
Next, you should decide whether you want your cell model to be edible or not.
- Edible cell models can be eaten (yum!) and are often made with cake, large cookies, Rice Krispie Treats, Jell-O, berries, or candies (e.g., M&Ms, gummy worms, jelly beans, etc.).
- Non-edible cell models cannot be eaten and are often made with everyday craft supplies like styrofoam, pipe cleaners, shower gel, string, Play-Doh, or modeling clay.
There are pros and cons to each type of project. Consider how much money you want to spend, which supplies you already have in your home, your teacher's requirements, and the length of time your project will be on display (edible items may eventually rot, smell, or attract bugs). Also, consider your plans for after the school project or science fair is over. Do you hope to save the cell model in the basement or garage with other treasured mementos? Weigh your options carefully and choose your project accordingly.
Tip: If you are building your 3D model for school, check with your teacher to make sure an edible cell model is ok before you take the time to make it!
Step 3: Consider the Parts of the Cell
Now you need to make a list of all the parts, or organelles, that need to be included in your 3D cell model.
Organelles are the "mini organs" that are found inside every plant and animal cell.
Each organelle has a different function and physical appearance, and together they work to keep the cell alive.
While plant and animal cells share many of the same organelles, including the nucleus, Golgi apparatus, and mitochondria, there are a few key differences. Check out the chart below to see which organelles are found where.
Parts of the Animal Cell vs. Plant Cell
|Cell Part||Animal Cell||Plant Cell|
Step 4: Choose Your Materials
Here's where the real fun begins! It's time to decide which materials you will use to create each organelle.
Activity: To power up your creativity, set a timer for two minutes. During that time, write down every possible material you can think of. Here's a short list to get you thinking outside the box:
- Edible Materials: Twizzlers, Skittles, gummy worms, jawbreakers, gum, pretzels, marshmallows, cereal, cake, cookies, chocolate chips, Jell-O, icing or fondant, sprinkles, food coloring
- Non-Edible Materials: Clay, styrofoam, beads, yarn, twine, dry noodles, dry beans, pipe cleaners, buttons, rubber bands, toothpicks, construction paper, cardboard
Hint: The best materials are ones that already look like the organelles you're trying to create. For example, the nucleus in any cell is always round, so a jawbreaker, bouncy ball, or orange would each make a great nucleus in your cell model.
Step 5: Build Your Model
As you begin building, make sure to start with the base of your 3D cell model. Why? Because you need to know how big to make everything, of course!
Once you've baked your cake, bought your styrofoam block, or sculpted your clay foundation, you can build those beautiful organelles. This is where your creativity can really shine—so have fun, and don't forget to keep a diagram of the organelles nearby! Having a diagram on hand will ensure that your cell model is not only super cool to look at but also scientifically accurate.
Once all of your organelles are securely attached to the base of your model, label the organelles. Toothpicks and stickers make great labels, and they let everyone know what's what on your cell model.
A Deeper Understanding
Building a cell model should deepen your understanding of the cell and all of its distinct parts. It's also important to understand the functions of each part and how they work together. Let's take a closer look:
Organelle: Any specialized structure inside the cell.
Cell Membrane: Composed of a double lipid bilayer, the cell membrane separates and protects the cell from its environment, regulates the movement of molecules in and out of the cell, and provides structure to the cell.
Cytoplasm: The semifluid substance that fills the cell. All of the cell's organelles are suspended inside the cytoplasm.
Nucleus: Where the cell's genetic information, or DNA, is stored. The nucleus is like the "brain" of the cell; it issues instructions about what the cell should do next.
Nucelar Membrane: Also called the nuclear envelope, this is the membrane that encloses the nucleus. Like the cell membrane, the nuclear membrane is composed of a double lipid bilayer.
Golgi Apparatus: Responsible for taking proteins and lipids within the cell and modifying, packaging, and transporting them via vesicles to other places within the cell. Also called the Golgi body or Golgi complex.
Mitochondria: Responsible for energy production within the cell. The mitochondria generate a special energy molecule called ATP, which stands for adenosine triphosphate.
Endoplasmic Reticulum: Similar to the Golgi apparatus, the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) serves as a center for the synthesis, modification, and transport of proteins. There are two types: the rough ER and smooth ER, which are characterized by certain physical and functional differences.
Ribosomes: Floating freely in the cytoplasm, ribosomes are molecules that are responsible for synthesizing proteins.
Vacuoles: Storage facilities for the cell. Vacuoles play a role in storing food and water, and they also facilitate detoxification (sequestering harmful materials) and the removal of waste products.
Central Vacuole: Found only in plant cells, this is a large vacuole that stores water and helps maintain optimal turgor pressure within the cell.
Lysosomes: As the cell's digestive system, lysosomes contain enzymes to digest (break down) macromolecules, old cell parts, and microorganisms. Lysosomes are found only in animal cells.
Cell Wall: Found only in plant cells, the cell wall surrounds the cell membrane. The cell wall is stiff and rigid, and it provides additional protection and support to the cell.
Chloroplasts: Found only in plant cells, chloroplasts produce food (energy) for the cell by converting sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into sugars. This process is called photosynthesis. The sunlight-absorbing molecules inside the chloroplast are called chlorophyll.