The City Inside A Cell

Teacher Notes Student Resources



 Lewis Thomas, a famous scientist, wrote in his book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, "The other night driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this .... what is it [the earth] most like?  Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell."

Instead of tackling the whole earth, your fifth grade teacher has challenged you to combine your knowledge of Social Studies and Science to show how a cell is just like a city.  There is a certificate for the student(s) able to identify the most points of comparison between a cell and a city.  At first, you think this is an impossible task, but then you begin to wonder if:

the organization of different activities into different areas,

the transport of raw materials,

the building of new structures,

the production of energy,

the removal of waste,

and effective communication systems

- are all just as important for a cell as they are for a city.

Essential Question:

How could a single cell be a metaphor for an entire city?

Task & Product


We will confine our research to two types of eukaryotic cells:

  Animal Cell 


                            drawing by N. Chen, student

Plant Cell

drawing by L. Tran, student

Your team will gather background information about cell structures, including the organelles, and then you will:

Prepare a slide for examination under a microscope.  Click here for directions on preparing plant and animal wet slides.
Complete a scientific drawing of the cell you researched to share with your group members (See student models above).  Click here for directions.
Observe and record the dynamic processes as they occur in living plant and animal cells.
Compare your information using this comparison chart to see if there are any important differences between animal and plant cells.
Brainstorm how a cell is like a city.  For example, the nucleus of the cell is like the city government because both direct activity.

After completing your research, you will use your knowledge to build a 3-dimensional, edible model of your cell.  You will use your model to explain how a cell is a metaphor for a city.

Or, your teacher may decide to assign a  Multimedia presentation where you share your research through a KidPix, PowerPoint, or video documentary showing how the organelles in the cell act like different groups of public servants, or parts of government.


The following scoring tools will be used to assess both the process of gathering information and your finished product:
Rubric for Research
Rubric for Scientific Drawing

Rubric for the model of Incredible, Edible Cell

You will also be graded on your work in your group using this Group Work Scoring Tool.


Essential Question:

How could a single cell be a metaphor for an entire city?

Subsidiary questions:

What is a cell?
How is a plant cell similar to and different from an animal cell?
What are the organelles inside a plant cell?  How do they function?
What are the organelles inside an animal cell?  How do they function?
Does a cell have boundaries like a city does?
How does a cell produce energy?
How does a cell get rid of waste?
What is the cell's communication network?
What is the cell's transportation network?
What directs the activity of a cell?
How does a cell build new structures?

Gather and Sort

Use this comparison chart to compare the structures of animal and plant cells; then, record the functions for each of the organelles.

Gather information about from a variety of sources.

Be sure to avoid plagiarism and keep track of your resources for a bibliographyNeed help documenting your resources?  Use the interactive tools at Noodle Tools Quick Cite.


Analyze your completed graphic organizer.

Synthesize your findings by choosing to answer one of  the following questions using a BCR format:

Briefly describe how a cell is like a city.  Be sure to include at least two specific examples.
Compare the function of chloroplasts and mitochondria in a cell. In your response, include
the name of the process that occurs in each organelle 
the importance of each process to the cell
Describe a controlled experiment a student could perform to test the effects of a temperature increase on a plant and animal cell wall.  Be sure to include:
all materials and equipment
the kind of data that will be collected
the experimental procedure

Evaluate the effectiveness of your research for the task.


Reflection and/or Extension Activities:   

Why are cells called the building blocks of life?
Use your calculator and your math skills to solve the following problem:
A cell divides every hour. Assuming no cells die during a 12-hour period, how many cells would exist after 12 hours?

Last update: January 2005

Created by Sharon Grimes and Kathy Wilson


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