Wells Students “Sustain-A-Cell”

October 4, 2017
A class project combined biological and environmental lessons as students designed cell models with found and repurposed materials.
images of cell models constructed with various reused and reusable materials

As part of each fall's Anatomy & Physiology course, Assistant Professor of Biology Christina Schmidt has her students create a cell model. For the past two years, a partnership with the Center for Sustainability and the Environment has challenged the students to think very differently about the project — working in teams, they put their models together using only found or natural materials from around campus. Titled "Sustain-a-Cell," the assignment blends scientific knowledge with practical lessons about how we interact with the world around us.

"The Sustain-a-Cell project encourages students to be thoughtful about the origin of the materials they use, taking them out of the 'silo' of their classroom," said Professor Schmidt. "It also stimulates a level of creativity that is beneficial to doing science (and everything else!). While creating their models, they are inevitably concentrating on what comprises a cell, and subsequently generate their own personal link to each of its components, which boosts their retention of the information."

Center for Sustainability and the Environment Director Marian Brown provides the class with simple guidelines and ground rules: students can't take anything that is still usable and make it unusable or to use another person's materials without permission. As they worked, the teams scoured free campus reuse areas, recycling bins, and e-waste collection containers.

Brown also provided some extra motivation in the form of prizes for three categories: Most Creative Use of Found Materials, Most Creative Use of Natural Materials, and Most Amusing Use of Found and/or Natural Materials. In addition, winning teams have to meet Professor Schmidt's criteria for complete responsiveness to the assignment, including all cell organelles in the model with identification of their function and materials used.

"This project is a great example of applied learning about sustainability," Brown said. "Students take away valuable lessons about the potential for reuse and repurposing of still-usable materials. They look at items that may have been used just once as a potential source of raw materials. Hopefully they might now think a little differently about what happens next with that item of plastic packaging from their recent purchase and consider reuses for materials rather than just adding it to the trash or recycling bin."

This year's winners of "Most Creative Use of Found Materials" were Shannon Simmons '20 and Miranda Mingen '20, who used a broken Brita pitcher as the cell membrane to which they hot-glued various other "found" items to represent cell components (e.g. an old tennis ball, used string, colored streamers left over from a campus event, popcorn kernels). The winning team for the "Most Creative Use of Natural Materials," Stephanie Minarik '20 and Daniel Popp '21, started with a hollowed-out pumpkin as their cell membrane and used only biological materials to represent the internal components. The hands-down winner for the "Most Amusing Use of Materials" went to the Allison Solomon '21 and Alicia Scales '21, who used chewed pink bubble gum shaped into several cell organelles. (see images above)

Read more about studying biology and sustainability at Wells.

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