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CELL-ebration Celebrates 10 Years of Hands-On Learning

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In December, St. Luke’s Upper School science department held its 10th annual CELL-ebration! This unique learning experience, designed by Upper School science teacher Dr. John Higgins, takes ninth grade biology students on a journey inside human cells by transforming an entire classroom into a gigantic, fully-functioning animal cell. 

CELL-ebration Presentation-Z

Working in teams that consist of members from every biology class, each student group is assigned an organelle to research. Students study how that structure functions, brainstorm the best materials to use to accurately depict their organelle and design larger-than-life models to present the theory of central dogma. In addition to building oversized cell structures, each group must work together to smoothly transition among organelles to show precisely how protein synthesis occurs.

CELL-ebration presentation

CELL-ebration promotes teamwork and creativity and offers an opportunity to make learning fun — taking students out of their textbooks and into an immersive, student-led, hands-on experience. After two weeks of researching and building, students show what they’ve learned by giving presentations in front of their peers, parents, faculty-staff, and administrators.

Below, Dr. Higgins shares more about this unique project.

Learning about cells can be a bit underwhelming for students, who are typically limited to seeing them through a microscope only. Students never get to experience what a cell is doing. 

Seventeen years ago, when I first began teaching about the cell, I found myself getting a little bored, which students could sense. Inspired, in part, by The Magic School Bus, rather than shrinking my class to take them into a cell, I made the cell big enough for students to step inside, so they could become the organelles and act out the central dogma. 

The CELL-ebration, both project-based and student-led, is interwoven with collaboration, communication, troubleshooting, problem-solving, and many other -ings and -tions. It also personifies the pillars of St. Luke’s Honor Code and our Community Goals of Learning. I could never have imagined just how much the CELL-ebration would grow and evolve at St. Luke’s during the last 10 years. While the project can be a Herculean endeavor for all involved, it provides three big takeaways that make the CELL-ebration unique, enjoyable, and memorable.

CELL-ebration build

First, each iteration of the CELL-ebration naturally embodies the collective characteristics, personalities, and creativity of all ninth grade biology students. Second, teachers, administrators, and parents learn something new each year about cells when our incredible students become incredible teachers. Lastly, I get to work in collaboration with my outstanding science colleagues, who reliably bring fresh and innovative ideas that help streamline, refine, and reimagine this learning experience. Hopefully, we also cultivate a physical and intellectual learning space that extends well beyond the pages of the students’ books, the walls of the classroom, and the membrane of a cell.

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St. Luke’s School is a secular (non-religious), private school in New Canaan, CT for grades 5 through 12 serving 25 towns in Connecticut and New York. Our exceptional academics and diverse co-educational community foster students’ intellectual and ethical development and prepare them for top colleges. St. Luke’s Center for Leadership builds the commitment to serve and the confidence to lead.