Weird Science! 5th Grade Plant Cell Project

Behold my mitochondria!

Is it art or is it a science project? You be the judge…

     I was informed last Friday that my daughter had an impending due date on a project for her 5th Grade Science class. The assignment was to produce a 3-D representation of either a plant or animal cell using just about any medium the student wanted.

     According to my daughter, the majority of her classmates were either going to go with something edible (pasta, cake, etc.) or the old standy-by: a Styrofoam ball. I was tasked with heading to the local Hobby Lobby Saturday morning to procure supplies.  I ended up with an idea that may be unique in the history of cell model science projects!

     In the interest of A) posting something on this here, humble little blog, and B) possibly helping some hapless parent out there with an idea for a quick and fairly simple cellular model, here’s what I came up with.

     I was cruising the aisles at Hobby Lobby with the intent to get a big Styrofoam ball, cutting a slice out and then representing the various parts & organelles with Sculpey polymer clay (mold it, bake it, glue it on). I was hunting the Styrofoam aisle when I passed an endcap loaded with glass bricks of various sizes. Unlike the kind of brick used in bathroom windows, these are meant to display items as there is an access slot on the top (or bottom). Out of somewhere it hit me that a shadow-box type model would be cool but how would I mount the parts?  Well, if you stick modeling clay to the inside of the glass, you don’t have to.

Here’s what you’ll need if you decide to do this project with your own kid:

–Large glass display brick (they make smaller ones but they don’t offer much room)
–Non-drying modeling clay in multiple colors
–Colored modeling sand (I used most of 5x 1.5 lb containers)
–Spray Paint (I used glitter green) for the cell wall
–Masking tape
–Hole puncher and label paper
–Crazy Glue (kinda optional)

     All together, this project cost about $30.00.  The glass brick was on sale and I used a 40% off coupon for the spray paint. It may sound expensive, but I later noted that the largest Styrofoam ball they had (maybe 10″ diameter) was $18.00.

Step 1:

     I masked off the front and sides of the brick to make the cell look cut-away.  This took about 10 minutes. I then sprayed a coat of gray Krylon primer because I wasn’t sure the glitter green spray would cover (it did).

Step 2:

     After drying about an hour in the sun, I stripped off the masking tape.  The paint dried rock hard and seems quite durable.

Step 3:

     Using the diagram in my daughter’s Science book and some art from Google Images, we fashioned cell parts from non-drying modeling clay and my daughter reached her hand through the access hole to squish them gently up against the front of the glass. The cell membrane is just a rope of green clay pushed into the corners of the front of the  brick.  And remember, if you can’t see it through the paint, you don’t need to add it.  The whole thing worked out well since no one can accuse me of doing it for her…my hand doesn’t fit!

Step 4:

     Once the cell membrane, nucleus, and organelles were in place, we simply filled the remaining void with craft sand (to represent the cell’s cytoplasm). I squished some green clay (cellular membrane color) onto the top of the sand to keep it in and attached the lid (which isn’t air/sand-tight since it’s got a hole for an electrical cord). But the clay topping keeps the sand in fine.

Step 5:

     Our assignment had a requirement for a key, so my daughter typed one up in MS Word and then we printed some numbers out on label paper and punched them out with a hole puncher.  I ended up super-gluing the numbers to the brick as they didn’t seem likely to stay on for long without that.  Your results may vary.

Plant Cell Model 2

     My daughter turned her project in Monday and got rave reviews from her teacher and classmates.  My wife swears she can’t find anything like it on Google or Pinterest so perhaps it’s the first of its kind.  My son and I are already planning on making an animal cell when he reaches 5th Grade in two years.

     Important Note.  Between the glass brick and like 7 lbs of sand, this project ends up being H-E-A-V-Y, so handle with care.  My wife hand-carried it to my daughter’s class just to avoid any possible disasters.  All in all, the project took about 90 minutes of work which included her typing the key.  Not too bad and a lot easier than trying to carve some Styrofoam with a bread knife!

Until next time…stay nerdy my friends!

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