The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life

What You Need

The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life


To prompt students to think about how the material they learn through this book can be applied to examine the world and answer questions that relate to the existence of cellular life.


This lesson uses the book The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life by Jack Challoner. The book was one of the finalists of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books and Films is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life makes the story of cells accessible to readers by translating technical information into a descriptive journey across themes of cellular biology. In particular, this book’s strengths lie in its frequent use of familiar imagery and captivating visuals to communicate advanced scientific information.

The story begins by reviewing the history of scientists’ understanding of life and cells, including how innovations of the microscope enabled groundbreaking discoveries and how it took many generations of scientists to develop the understanding of cells that we now have today.

The book then dives into the traits and functions that enable cellular life. “Chapter Two: Inside Living Cells” in particular walks readers through the cell’s fundamental machinery, such as membranes, DNA, proteins, and ATP. The following chapters then build on this foundation to discuss cell division, single-cellular life, multi-cellular life, differentiation, and cellular life cycles. The book then concludes by highlighting several specialized cell types in the human body, including erythrocytes and neurocytes, giving readers the opportunity to understand how form matches function and appreciate the many incredible roles that cells play in the inner workings of the human body.

This book is best suited for students with an existing familiarity with cellular biology, but by reading The Cell in concert with this lesson, it will help students solidify their understanding of how cell structure matches function and how cells shape the world around them. While the book does cover basic cellular biology elements with broad strokes, it is better used as a tool to reinforce students’ understanding of the material and to explain concepts using captivating real-world examples and extensive visual illustrations.

Below are some common misconceptions that students might have about cell biology. Keep these in mind as you conduct this lesson:

  • It is common for students to not be familiar with what constitutes life, especially as it relates to cells, single-cellular life, and viruses. This topic is introduced on page 144.
  • Students often have the misconception that cells of the body carry different genomes. For example, they may think that the DNA in skin cells differs from the DNA in a muscle cell. This misconception is addressed on page 133, and the mechanics of gene expression is discussed in more detail beginning on page 136.
  • Students may believe that all cells are the same size and shape, such that there is a generic cell. Cell differentiation is covered extensively in chapter 5, particularly beginning on page 132.
  • Students may think that some living parts of organisms are not made of cells.
  • Students may tend to think that larger organisms generally have larger cells than smaller organisms. Instead, they actually have more cells.
  • Students commonly confuse the fact that both plants and animals produce ATP through aerobic respiration. They may initially tend to think that plant cells produce ATP during photosynthesis, whereas animal cells produce ATP during aerobic respiration.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.6 Analyze the author’s purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, identifying important issues that remain unresolved.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.9 Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.

Planning Ahead

Depending on how long you want to allow for students to read the book, this lesson could be carried out over the course of a quarter. Students should read the book on their own and complete the reading log and then follow up with the virtual lab.

If you plan to use the virtual lab provided on CELLS alive!, make sure to read the instructions, and consider running through the lab before introducing it to the class. It should take less than fifteen minutes to walk through the steps.

If you decide to make the final essay a research assignment, make sure to introduce students to literature research resources.

Lastly, note that this lesson includes a student reading log, which prompts students to further reflect on the book’s content at the end of each chapter. If you use a different reading log format, if students in your class already keep reading notebooks, or if you want to focus on a particular aspect of the book, feel free to adapt this or to use your own template.


The Cell is a great biology classroom tool for two reasons. First, it uses stunning visual images and a more conversational tone to communicate technical information, so that it can appeal to an array of learning styles. Second, it uses familiar analogies and provides relevant examples, so that readers can visualize abstract concepts and recognize the ways that cell biology relates to their own lives.

Since students likely have an existing understanding of cell biology, the following questions will help students begin thinking about why cells are important to understand and study. Use these discussion questions to introduce students to the themes presented in the book:

  • Why are cells regarded as the building blocks of life?
      (Every living organism on this planet is composed of one or more cells. Cells perform all of the necessary processes that support life, from protein-building to replication, even if that role is specialized in a multicellular organism.)
  • What makes cells suitable to be the building blocks of life?
      (Cell membranes insulate the cellular contents, enabling the environment inside the cell to be different from the outside environment. Cells contain an instruction manual (DNA) that not only explains how cells function, but also enables replication and passing information along to future generations. Cells also contain the mechanisms to produce proteins, which perform many of the diverse functions within the cell. There are many other acceptable answers to this question.)
  • What are the basic functions that a cell needs to perform in order to survive?
    • (Cells need to harness energy, synthesize proteins, and reproduce. They also need to provide structure, take in nutrients, and remove metabolic waste.)
  • What are some of the basic elements present in all cells, and what features vary across cells of different organisms and even across cells within multicellular organisms?
    • (All cells contain DNA as a heritable genetic code, transcribe DNA into RNA, translate RNA on ribosomes to syntheize proteins, and have a cell membrane. Cell components that vary across organisms are diverse, so students may have a number of answers. For example, they may note the presence/absence of a nucleus, organelles, or a cell wall or the differing cell sizes and means of locomotion.)


In this part of the lesson, students should read The Cell on their own as homework. As they read the book, they should fill out the The Cell Reading Log student sheet, which should be collected and graded. Once students have read the book, they should do an in-class discussion and then a virtual lab.

This reading log can be assigned as homework to help guide students towards the core takeaways of the lesson as they read. Students will have to answer multiple questions after each chapter, and the questions are intended to help students reflect on their focal topics.

You may want to check students’ notebook entries after the first chapter to ensure that they are taking substantive notes. If time allows, you can have brief classroom discussions, as a class or in groups, following the completion of each chapter. Since the answers to these questions are often open-ended, these discussions would help students learn from each others’ perspectives and ideas. The reading log questions for chapters two and seven, in particular, would prompt responses that students would benefit from sharing, since each student will likely approach the question differently.

See the “Assessment” section below for suggestions on how to grade the reading log.

After students have completed reading the book and filling out the reading log, they will have covered a wide range of topics and concepts in cell biology and studied many detailed images of cellular contents and processes. However, reviewing these concepts through an animated simulation of a cell can help solidify their understanding and better enable students to visualize cells. The eight-minute video, Inner Life of the Cell created by Harvard BioVisions, visually recreates many of the cell structures and processes reviewed in The Cell and would help students imagine how the cell structures act in a 3-D space. (If your class finds the animation helpful, you or your students individually can explore more videos produced by BioVisions using the link above.)

Specifically, make sure to preface the video by explaining that this animation “[illustrates] mechanisms that allow a white blood cell to sense its surroundings and respond to an external stimulus.” This context may help students better grasp the images. Students should use The Cell student esheet to watch the video. While they watch the video, they should write down the structures or cell types that they recognize on The Cell student sheet. This activity can be assigned as homework or done collectively as a class. You can point to individual structures with the students and have them call out their ideas on what the structure is and use the video as a tool to bring the class content to life.

After students have watched the video, you can assign as homework or ask in class the following questions:

  • What were some of the cellular processes that you’re familiar with shown in the video?
      (Polymerization and depolymerization of microtubules and actin filaments, microtubules growing from centrioles, motor proteins carrying vesicles along microtubules, mRNA translation/protein synthesis by ribosomes, modification and packaging of proteins and lipids in the Golgi apparatus, etc.)
  • What clues indicated that this was a white blood cell sensing its surroundings and responding to an external stimulus?
      (Leukocytes rolling through blood vessels, activation of receptor proteins to induce cascade signaling, adhesion to endothelial cells, which induces the leukocyte to migrate across the vessel’s endothelial cells (trans-endothelial migration) and towards the inflammation.)
  • How does this video change your perception of how cells function?
      (How the phosopholipid bilayer and extracellar matrix function, how ribosomes translate mRNA, how motor proteins carry vesicles across the cell, how microtubules and filaments form and break down, how cells interact, etc.)

The virtual lab found on CELLS alive! is a great tool to get students thinking about the types of questions we can ask about cells and how to test for answers. Students should use their student esheet to go to the Virtual Lab. They should complete the lab individually at home and fill out the Virtual Lab student sheet, in groups, or in class. After completing the lab, you can go over these questions from the student sheet as a class:

  • What types of hypotheses can you test with this kind of genetics experiment?
  • How does knowledge about cells influence our lives today?
  • If you were a cell biologist, what questions would you ask to further our knowledge of cells? What would you want to learn? How would you go about testing your hypotheses? How is the information you learned about cells useful to your daily lives? How does it influence your personal (career) interests?

(Answers to these questions may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)

Finally, The Cell provides a lot of the same content as a traditional biology textbook, but communicates it in a unique way. You can walk students through the different ways to communicate technical scientific information by leading a discussion with these questions:

  • How is The Cell similar to and different from your biology textbook? Did you learn anything new or find the content more interesting?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks?
  • What is Challoner’s purpose in writing The Cell?
  • Why is science communication important?
(Answers to these questions may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)


You can assess students’ mastery of the material by collecting and grading their reading logs, using these criteria:

  • Student has an entry for each chapter of the book.
  • Student reaction responses are thoughtful and substantive.
  • Shows complete understanding of the questions and processes.

Additionally, students can demonstrate their ability to synthesize their knowledge and problem-solve. In chapter six, Challoner dives into the topic of self-regulating mechanisms that prevent unregulated growth and how failure of those checks and balances can result in cancer. The following prompt can either ask students to rely on their existing knowledge to propose solutions or perform research and consult outside literature about how scientists are proposing solutions.

“In light of what you’ve learned about the cell and how it self-regulates to avoid unchecked cell division, brainstorm (or research) the ways that you could treat cancerous cells. Identify the differences between cancerous and non-cancerous cells, and brainstorm (or research) methods of targeting the cancerous cells to prevent mitosis or cause apoptosis.” 

For example, students could discern from reading the book that perhaps scientists could look for ways to target telomerase, to turn the telomerase-making gene off, or by killing cells that are dividing. This essay question will help them recognize that applying the knowledge they’ve learned about cells can have real-world impacts.


You can extend the ideas in this lesson by guiding your students through these Science NetLinks lessons:

  • From Cell to DNA introduces students to the genetic information stored in DNA within the human cell nucleus.
  • Cell Communication expands upon students’ basic understanding of the cell as a single unit by considering the cell as part of a larger system or community.

Students also can explore more of the CELLSalive! site to learn more about cells and their function.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards