Unit Overview

In the Cells unit, students are led through a progression of three inquiry lessons that focus on how organelles work together to help a cell function, and how cells work together to allow our body to function. Emphasis is given to the relationship between structure and function.

Lesson Overview

Medium solveSolve: Hunger Mystery + Vocabulary Mind Map
Medium makeMake: Explore Cells!
Medium engineerEngineer: Engineer a Never-Before-Seen Cell

Students contextualize vocabulary related to cells in a Mind Map before helping Mosa Mack solve the mystery of why Eric collapsed during a hike. By the end of The Solve, students will discover that our cells consist of many parts, each of which serves a specific function, and our cells work together in order to allow our bodies to function. (75 mins)

Students are given a set of mysterious samples and asked to determine whether they are samples of living or nonliving things. They use online explorations and microscopic examinations to compare and contrast animal and plant cell structure. They then apply this knowledge to draw conclusions about the mysterious specimens. Through an optional extension, students create a cell analogy to demonstrate how the function of cell organelles contributes to the cell function. (Make activity: 300 minutes; Optional Extension: 200 minutes)

Learners will design a never-before-seen cell, identifying key organelles required in order to make their cell function. Building from The Make, students focus on the theme that structure helps support function. (120 minutes)

Next Generations Science Standards

Conduct an investigation to provide evidence that living things are made of cells; either one cell or many different numbers and types of cells. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on developing evidence that living things are made of cells, distinguishing between living and non living things, and understanding that living things may be made of one cell or many and varied cells.]
Develop and use a model to describe the function of a cell as a whole and ways the parts of cells contribute to the function. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the cell functioning as a whole system and the primary role of identified parts of the cell, specifically the nucleus, chloroplasts, mitochondria, cell membrane, and cell wall.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment of organelle structure/function relationships is limited to the cell wall and cell membrane. Assessment of the function of the other organelles is limited to their relationship to the whole cell. Assessment does not include the biochemical function of cells or cell parts.]

Science & Engineering Practices

  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Constructing Explanations or Arguments From Evidence
  • Designing Solutions
  • Developing and Using Models
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information (Oral Presentation)

Disciplinary Core Ideas

  • Structure and Function

Cross Cutting Concepts

  • Scale, Proportion and Quantity
  • Structure and Function

Inquiry Scale

  • Each lesson in the unit has an Inquiry Scale that provides directions on how to implement the lesson at the level that works best for you and your students.
  • “Level 1” is the most teacher-driven, and recommended for students in 4th-5th grades. “Level 4” is the most student-driven, and recommended for students in 7th-8th grades.
  • For differentiation within the same grade or class, use different inquiry levels for different groups of students who may require additional support or an extra challenge.

Common Misconceptions

  • Learners may initially think that humans are the only organisms made from cells. Emphasize that all living things are made of cells. This includes animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria.
  • Learners may think that all living things are made of more than one cell. Emphasize to students that living things can be multicellular (made of many cells) or unicellular (made of one single cell). Bacteria, and select fungi and protist species, are examples of unicellular organisms.
  • Learners tend to think that movement is a key characteristic of life and therefore, if an object does not appear to move, it is not alive. This may lead to the belief that a plant is not alive. Emphasize to students that many living things don’t appear to be moving.
  • Learners may have previously seen diagrams of cells that assume all cells look alike, so differentiation in structure and function should be emphasized through this unit.
  • Learners find it difficult to make the connection between food, nutrients, and glucose. The idea that food is broken down into glucose, which is then used by cells to make energy, should be made explicit throughout the activities.
  • Learners find it difficult to understand that the mitochondria and cell membrane have their own functions, separate from the nucleus “directing” cell activities, which actually refers to the creation of protein products.


    • Nucleus
    • Mitochondria
    • Muscle Cell
    • Small Intestine Cell
    • Brain Cell
    • Cell Membrane

Content Expert Title

  • Anjelica Gonzalez, PhD
    Donna L. Dubinsky Associate Professor Biomedical Engineering Yale University


  • Powerpoints for Make and Design
  • Vocabulary Cards
  • Solve Student Handout
  • Make Student Handout
  • Design Student Handout
  • Vocabulary Mind Map

New: RocketLit Leveled Reading

* To give our users the most comprehensive science resource, Mosa Mack is piloting a partnership with RocketLit, a provider of leveled science articles.

  • Things Get More Complicated When You're Older

    Medium 17 582
    Your body is pretty smart. Just like each different person in a house might have different chores, your body has a division of labor that it can achieve through differentiation. You start out as a collection of stem cells that develop into each of the different cells that make up your body now.

  • Little + Little = Bigger

    Medium 18 205
    Your body is probably much more well organized than you'll ever be. Each cell is organized into tissues which come together to make organs that then work day and night as organ systems to keep you alive!

  • You Know You're a Plant if You...

    Medium 20 583
    If you find yourself looking in the mirror and realize you've got a cell wall, chloroplast and large vacuole. . . how are you even reading this? On a more serious note: Plant cells have a cell wall for structure and protection, chloroplasts to create food, and large vacuoles to store water and waste.

  • We Live off of Plant Waste?

    Medium 129 549
    In this article, students read about the basics of cellular respiration. The article describes how cells use glucose and oxygen in their mitochondria to get the energy they need to live.


    Medium 14 201
    How do we decide what is alive? Some of the criteria we have is that they must develop, reproduce and use energy. Each of the living things we've found on earth is made of cells and we can call an organism.

  • Let's See What You're Made of

    Medium 15 202
    Living things come in many different shapes and sizes. Some (like you) are made of many cells, but other are just one single cell. You may not be able to see each of these organisms, or the small parts that you're composed of without a microscope.

  • Different Kinds of Building Blocks

    Medium 16 72
    Both plants and animals are made of building blocks that we call cells. Both plant and animal cells have unique characteristics and also many similarities.

  • Living Energy

    Medium 53 110
    Many of the living things we see around us either eat food or make food and then have to break it down. We have special parts of our cells, called mitochondria, that help with this and allow us to create usable energy in a process called cellular respiration.

  • Keeping Us Alive

    Medium 11 204
    The balance that living things must maintain on the inside is called Homeostasis. Each of your cells and organs has a specific job, or function, which allows them to specialize and become a pro at whatever they do.