Cross section of a plant stem under a microscope - circular blobs of various shapes and sizes organized so that blobs of similiar size and share are together.

5 Cell Structures and Functions Students Need to Know for NGSS

April 1, 2024 No Comments

Teaching cell structures and functions is tricky because it’s hard to know EXACTLY what you are supposed teach. Which cell structures should you include and which can you ignore? And, if you ask three people, you’re likely to get three different answers. In this post, I’ll look at the next generation science standards and explain what to include and why. Also, I’ll let you know which structures are okay to leave out.

In this post, I’ll discuss why its important to focus on the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) when teaching cell structure and function. If you don’t feel comfortable utilizing the CCCs in your class, I’ve created some simple resources to get you started. Click here to get my free resource as well as additional information about best practices to use in your classroom.

Cell Structures and Functions

Understanding cell structures and functions is a vital part of most middle school life science programs. Also, this is true high school biology. But, there are so many parts of the cell. Its hard to know which to teach and which aren’t necessary.

What’s wrong with having students learn all of the cell structures and functions?

While each organelle plays a crucial role in the cell, giving students with too much information can overwhelm them. Instead, focusing on the key organelles allows for a deeper understanding of how the structures work together to support the function of the cell. Let’s look at a few more reasons that this practice is problematic.

Placing Multilingual Learners at a Disadvantage

For multilingual students, failing to focus on the most important structures is incredibly confusing. Scientific terms, are difficult for all students to grasp. When we overemphasize terminology in a classroom, it leaves these multilingualstudents at a distinct disadvantage. This is compounded by the fact that explanations about organelle function are generally written in language that is difficult for even native speakers to comprehend.

Overemphasizing Memorization

By solely focusing on memorizing a long list of organelles, the traditional approach to teaching cell structures can inadvertently promote rote memorization over meaningful understanding. Often, teachers ask students to memorize a list of organelles. As a result, passively absorb information and regurgitate facts without truly comprehending their significance.

The Problem with Front-Loading Vocabulary

Front loading vocabulary is a teaching strategy where educators introduce key terms and concepts before students see them in context. This approach aims to familiarize students with important vocabulary words and their meanings upfront. And, this should improve comprehension. However, this is no longer considered the best practice in teaching academic science language. This is especially true for our multilingual learners.

To learn more about how to teach science vocabulary, click here.

Student looking through a microscope
Providing students with experiences like viewing cell structures under a microscope helps them to understand how cells function in a much more profound way than providing vocabulary instruction alone.

The NGSS Approach to Teaching Cell Structures and Functions

In the NGSS, teaching cell structures and functions goes beyond providing a list of organelles and their functions. It’s about understanding how cells work as dynamic systems and how they interact with their environment. This approach encourages students to explore real-world problems and phenomena. And this fosters deeper understanding of the subject matter.

So, the focus is on understanding the core concepts and processes within cells. This limits the number of organelles that need to be learned. By prioritizing depth over breadth, educators ensure that students develop a strong understanding that includes connections to the crosscutting concepts.

The Need-to-Know Cell Structure and Functions

In middle school, the evidence statement for MS-LS1-2 specifically mentions five organelles: the cell membrane, cell wall, nucleus, chloroplast and the mitochondria.

Plant cells under a microscope
When we focus on observable phenomena, students develop a more complete understanding of cell structure and function.

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 foundational knowledge that students will need moving into high school.

In high school, the emphasis isn’t on individual organelles. Instead, students should understand how individual cells are part of hierarchical structures that support organisms. And, there is a focus on protein synthesis at the molecular level. Similarly, students learn about processes such as cellular respiration and photosynthesis as a chemical reaction used to store and release energy.

These are the most important structures to learn about in the cell. It it possible to include other structures as well. However, it is important that you only introduce organelles that are vital to your storyline.

Integrating the Crosscutting Concepts

When teaching about cells, it’s crucial not to get bogged down in the minutiae of content. Rather, it presents an excellent opportunity to integrate crosscutting concepts, which are overarching themes that connect different scientific disciplines.

Systems and System Models: Integrating the crosscutting concept of systems and system models into lessons enhances students’ understanding of how cells function within larger systems. By viewing cells as systems made of various organelles and molecules, students explore how these components interact and work together to carry out essential functions.

Scale, Proportion and Quantity: Students in middle and high school struggle to understand the different levels of organization within an organism. For example, students fail to understand which terms apply to atoms, molecules, organelles or cells. Providing explicit instruction about scale improves this understanding.

To learn more about scale, proportion and quantity, click here.

Energy and Matter: Most of the standards regarding cells deal with how the cell obtains and uses energy. So, this is a great time to use the crosscutting concept of energy and matter to make these ideas more clear. Students learn about energy transfer, input and outputs. This is an excellent CCC to focus on when teaching about photosynthesis and cellular respiration.

Erin Sadler

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