Curriculum Element: Teaching Diversity in Structure and Function of Cells Using 3D Model Puzzles

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Author: Dr. Vedham Karpakakunjaram, Montgomery College (vedham.karpakakunajram at

Short Description: Engaging biology students in active learning. Students use 3D cell model puzzles in introductory biology classes to learn unique and shared features of plant, animal and bacterial cells, and the correlation between structure and function.

Implementation Levels: Introductory Biology courses (science majors and non-science majors); if modified appropriately, can be implemented in high school Biology curriculum. Examples: Principles of Biology I (BIOL 150) and Principles of Biology II (BIOL 151) at Montgomery College; Principles of Biology I (BSCI 105) and Principles of Biology II (BSCI 106) at the University of Maryland.


This curriculum element uses 3-D models of cellular organelles in bacterial, plant and animal cells to highlight the diversity in the structures in various organisms and emphasize the strong correlation between these diverse structures and their unique functions. It addresses a major learning objective in introductory biology, unity and diversity in cellular structures, with a hands-on activity where the students work in groups. The cell replicas are scale models with removable organelles. They are presented to the student groups as puzzle kits with one organelle missing and one organelle from a different organism. The student groups are asked to identify the type of cell assigned to them and then solve the puzzle by collaborating with other groups to exchange organelles to make complete cell models. The students are provided with videos and files describing the similarities and diversity among different types of cells before the activity. Students’ scores in test questions related to this material was almost two times better (69%) than those had access to the same files and videos and a lecture on cellular structures (36%).

The models were made using rapid prototype printer from a CAD/CAM (computer aided design/computer aided manufacturing) file developed by Dr. Karpakakunjaram as a part of the RET program. The CAD/CAM files can be accessed below.