Five Cellular Structures Students Should Learn About in Middle School

Life Science Middle School Structure and Function

Which cellular structures do students need to learn about in middle school?  There are far fewer than you would think.  There are only five cellular structures that students need to learn about in middle school.


Why don’t students need to know all of the organelles anymore?

5 Cellular StructuresPre-NGSS, the students were required to memorize the function of a long list of organelles.  This practice de-emphasized how organelles worked together.

In middle school, students build on their prior knowledge from elementary school.  Let’s take a look at performance expectation 4-LS1-1.

  • Plants and animals have both internal and external structures that serve various functions in growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction.  This performance expectation allows students to take a discovery-based approach to learn about the structures that support life in both plants and animals.

As our students progress to middle school, students should deepen their understanding of how these structures contribute to the overall health and survival of the organism. By focusing on a few cellular structures, students can concentrate on the Crosscutting Concept of Structure and Function rather than merely memorizing their components.

Which organelles should I teach in an NGSS aligned middle school classroom?

The evidence statement for MS-LS1-2 specifically mentions five cellular components:

  • the cell membrane
  • cell wall
  • Nucleus:
  • chloroplast
  • mitochondria

There is a direct connection between these components and the survival and reproduction of the organism.  They also build directly upon students’ prior knowledge from earlier grade bands. They also provide essential foundational knowledge that students will need moving into high school.

These organelles also are essential in other life science standards. For example, the chloroplast harnesses energy from the sun, which is used by the entire ecosystem.  The significance of the chloroplast is apparent throughout the ecosystem.

How do you teach about the organelles in an NGSS aligned classroom?

In an NGSS aligned classroom, the content is up to you.  Remember that the NGSS are standards, not content.  

I personally teach each component separately. My lessons are structured so that each organelle is introduced in the context of the role of the organism or the ecosystem.  I do this by bundling my standards.  Check out this example.

Chloroplasts and Mitochondria in the Context of Ecosystem

For this lesson sequence, I bundle the following standards:

  • MS-LS1-6. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms.
  • MS-LS1-7. Develop a model to describe how food is rearranged through chemical reactions forming new molecules that support growth and/or release energy as this matter moves through an organism.
  • MS-LS2-3. Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.

Students learn about the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the context of the ecosystem.  I do this so that we can discuss these concepts at different scales and include sub-cellular structures like chloroplasts and mitochondria.











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