• Jena Martin MD

See one, Eat one, Teach two

I’ve always thought I’d be a great Biology teacher. That was before I tried to teach my daughters. 

We started two summers ago (at ages 11 and 9) with them just memorizing the basics about plant and animal cells.  Nearly every night during the summer, we’d watch this YouTube video after dinner: Cell structureThen, I’d have them draw out the cells and make two copies of each cell type. (I am very good at rote learning). This continued on for several weeks, culminating in their large projects that we still display. 

Did I mention the groans of despair, the back talk and complaints???

Nevertheless like all doctors I have an inflated sense of my ability to make this stuff interesting!   After all, medical education is built on doctors teaching each other.  "See one, do one, teach one" is often recited during training.  I'm good at teaching pathology residents when we sit at the microscope together - my kids should be no different, right?

Last summer we tackled DNA itself, using this simple model I ordered from 3D Molecular Designs.

If I could, I would purchase all their kits! ( Site here: 3D Molecular Designs)  We used the DNA starter kit (shown above) and both girls learned what a nucleotide is (a molecule with a Nucleotide BaseSugarPhosphate) and how DNA is made up of a chain of nucleotides. They learned which base matches with which; in case you yourself forgot, it is Adenine-Thymine, Cytosine-Guanine (A-T, C-G). I taught them about copying the DNA and how it is backwards, like a reverse zipper. We learned words like replication and transcription. 

I did not imagine these efforts would qualify them to work in a research lab, but rather my goal was to get them familiar with these words and the abstract concepts.  One thing I learned myself as a latecomer to science was that abstract and creative thinking about these processes can go a long way towards content mastery.

However, I will admit neither seems on fire about these concepts!   And, both these attempts at Summer Science School seemed to have one unintended result - my oldest blew off the cell unit in science!  It was so simple!  All the material in class seemed really easy, until all of a sudden when it wasn't.  She now knows the nasty reality that science builds upon itself. She was almost instantly behind and frustrated. Cue the despair and complaining, again.

This school year the 13 year old’s science class really stepped it up, and they had a chapter about blood cells. They seemed to focus a lot on macrophages, calling them phagocytes, (cellular immunity) and not so much on lymphocytes (humoral immunity).  I thought of a simple way to make this topic fun, and easy sugar cookies seemed the way to do so.

I used the peripheral blood smear as a guide.

We talked about the function of each cell type and why how they look is explained by what they do.   

  • The nucleus in lymphocytes is nearly the entire cell – because they are busy making lots of antibodies

  • Neutrophils are pretty with 3 lobes to their nuclei... and they are what make pus (lots of groans over this one).

  • Eosinophils have enlarged granules in their cytoplasm (cinnamon red hots).  When they release these granules (degranulate) they cause allergic reactions.

We only made 1 macrophage per child, and had to make them large enough to engulf the lymphocytes.

The net result of all this effort was a questionable amount of knowledge imbued, a very messy kitchen, and too many cookies ingested by my husband.  We'll have to wait and see if any of the information was digested too.

Note: My daughters are 13 and 11, and they’d love to be featured in this blog, but I’m not going to show their pictures (sorry dears!). We keep them off of social media and neither has a phone. That’s a story for another blog posting, and I think it is rank hubris for me to boast about that, given I am not sure just how much longer it might last.