Cell Size and Division or How Big Would You Want To Be If You Were A Cell

Nicholas DiGiovanni Naperville Central High School
440 W. Aurora Rd
Naperville IL 60540


1. For all grades: to illustrate the usefulness of models to represent things
which are too small (cells or molecules) or too large in science.

2. For primary grades: to learn to measure with a ruler, to cut a cube, and
determine smaller particles react faster than larger particles.

3. For middle grades: to determine surface area and volume of a cube in addition
to the above.

4. For upper grades: to determine the surface area to volume ratio and relate
this to cell size, to determine why cells divide and 1-3 above.


2500 ml 2% agar solution (sufficient for 15-20 set-ups or pairs)
a cake pan
phenolphthalein powder
1 250 ml beaker or cup
50 ml .4% NaOH solution
a metric ruler, stirrer or spoon, plastic knife, and paper towels


1.Advance Preparation:
Mix enough agar powder in boiling water to make a 2% agar solution. Use enough
water to fill a cake pan to a depth of 3 cm (approximately 2500 ml). Stir until
all the powder is dissolved. As the agar cools, add 1 g of phenolphthalein (if
solid is unavailable, add several ml of liquid phenolphthalein indicator) per
liter of solution and stir thoroughly. If the color is pink, add dilute acid
drop by drop until the solution turns colorless. Pour the mixture into the cake
pan to solidify. This will provide the agar for the model of the cells. If
agar is unavailable, substitute potatoes, but then razor blades must be used and
a dye found which will penetrate the potato in a short time.

2. Discuss models and their importance with the class. In this activity we will
use agar blocks to represent cells.

3. Give the students a 6x3x3 cm block of agar cut from the cake pan, a plastic
knife, and metric ruler. Ask them to cut three separate cubes 1x1x1, 2x2x2, and
3x3x3 cm from the block.

4. Ask the students, "If you were a cell which cell would you rather be (small,
medium, or large) and why?" Write this down.

5. Ask the students to place the cubes into the beaker. Then the teacher pours
the NaOH into the beaker to just cover the cubes. (CAUTION: Sodium hydroxide
is caustic and can burn the skin and eyes.)

6. The cubes should remain in the solution for 10 minutes. They should be
stirred occasionally with the spoon. When the NaOH comes into contact with the
agar blocks, the blocks and perhaps the solution will turn a pink color. The
students enjoy this.

7. Depending on the grade level, students should be given a task to do while the
cubes are "soaking". Primary grades may be asked if this were a cell, what type
of things might move into it. Older students may be asked the same as well as
to explain diffusion since this is what is happening. They should also be asked
to set up a data table in which they determine the surface area, volume, and
surface area to volume ratio for each cube.

8. After 10 minutes the cubes are taken out of the beaker with a spoon and dried
off with a paper towel. The students should cut the cubes in half and measure
the distance from the outer edge inward that has turned pink and record this.

9. Students will discover that the distance that the solution travelled in each
cube is the same (5 mm). There is a pink border around the 2x2x2 cm and 3x3x3
cm cube, but the 1x1x1 cm cube is pink throughout. Ask if the pink represented
food, water or something else needed by the cell to survive, which "cell" got
the needed substance distributed to all its parts. They should see that the
smallest cell is most efficient since it is pink throughout.

10. Mathematically, students should observe that the smallest cube has the
largest surface area to volume ratio (SA:VOL). Therefore this illustrates that
a large SA:VOL promotes better efficiency in moving things into and out of cells
and thus survival. This can also be related to smaller particles reacting
faster than larger particles in chemical reactions (i.e. Granular sugar
dissolves easier than sugar cubes.)


Students can be asked which type cell they think would have a better chance
for survival, one which is 1x1x1 cm or one which is .1x.1x.1 cm. They need to
justify their response. 5 points for a proper mathematical as well as written
explanation. 4 points for an explanation which is a little unclear. 3 points
for a proper explanation but improper or no math. 2 points for an unclear
explanation but shows thought. 1 point for an honest attempt.


Adapted from Biological Sciences: An Ecological Approach. Kendall Hunt. 1987
Return to Biology Index