Teachers: Jeanne Powers, Biology Teacher at PVPACHS, and Jodi Falk, Dance Director at PVPACHS

Authors: Jodi Falk and Jeanne Powers
October, 2008

Jeanne Powers, Biology teacher at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Jodi Falk, Director of Dance at PVPACHS, created and implemented a short series of classes that used physical movement exercises to help teach some basic principles of the workings of human cells.  This idea grew from wanting to integrate the performing art of dance into the academic discipline of biology; the result was an integrated class, informed discussion, and essays by the students on the nature of equilibrium, not only in the cells, but also in their lives and on the planet.

It has been well documented that engaging the kinesthetic intelligence of children in primary and elementary education is a powerful tool for learning many subjects in the academic curriculum (Gilbert, Jensen, Overby, Pica, Griss, and Zakkai).  However, there is very little written about this for high school age children, and whether this kind of intelligence is still a meaningful vehicle for gaining understanding.  This class does not prove nor disprove the possibility that it is meaningful; however, it does serve to ask the question and bring up this possibility in educational discourse.

Ms. Powers’ wanted to help solidify her students’ understanding of the ways material can move in and out of a semi-permeable cell membrane.  Along with this is the notion of equilibrium, or how a cell balances its materials inside and outside of the cell membrane.  The specific topics she wanted to cover were: DIFFUSION, ACTIVE TRANSPORT with channels, ENDOCYTOSIS and EXOCYTOSIS.

DIFFUSION occurs when there are particles on either side of a cell membrane and the particles are not equal on both sides.  The particles want to move to equilibrium where the concentration can be the same on both sides of the cell membrane.  The particles will move only from high concentration to low concentration because no energy is used during diffusion.

In ACTIVE TRANSPORT, energy is used with the help of pathways or channels inside the cell membrane.  This energy, called ATP, helps to “carry” the material across the cell membrane. Because there is energy, the particles can move against the concentration gradient from low to high.

ENDOCYTOSIS is the ability for a cell to engulf a particle by changing its own shape and bringing it into the cell. EXOCYTOSIS is the opposite, it is the ability for the cell to release material to the outside of the cell.  Both processes involve the cell changing its form to move the particle or material along.

Ms. Falk decided to do at least one movement exercise for each of the four processes.  For diffusion, Ms. Falk named the process before describing the movement activity; for the others, Ms. Falk had the students move and create and then decipher which process they were embodying.  Discussions followed each exercise.

Handshake warm-up

For diffusion, Ms. Falk first led a warm-up where each student shook the hand of another student (this can be done with scarves or gloves on if touching skin is not permitted or practiced) and then another, always keeping one hand connected.  The “game” is to only have one hand, in other words to not be without a hand, or to not be with two hands.  This exercise can reveal some social cues: if someone is too quick to let go of a hand, or highly concerned with another who doesn’t have a hand.  In any case, the idea here is to get used to moving and seeing how movement can be looked at as a metaphor for processes not directly involved in the exercise.  Diffusion is partly depicted in this activity by very little use of energy to move from one person, or cell, to another.

Bumper car jam

A more detailed movement game for diffusion followed the handshake warm-up.  Students were asked to connect arm-in-arm two or three across.  When Ms. Falk said “go”, the students were asked to run across the room, and, if they were three across, they were to drop one person onto a two across team, so that the greater number would “diffuse” to a lower number, and equilibrium would be reached.  At least, it would be reached for a moment.  Then, of course, the two across team would now be a three across, and would need to repeat the dropping off action.  This drop-off and pick-up action continued until Ms. Falk said “stop”.  The obvious short-lived nature of equilibrium was truly seen in this exercise.  This point became the basis for essays that the students wrote later in the unit.

“Me” game

Without explaining that the next exercise was about active transport, Ms. Falk placed a line of blue tape across the floor.  On one side of the tape, she mentioned that it was the “in”side or “cool” group, and the other side, the “out”side or not as cool group.  This led to a fun discussion about which side was better.  Ms. Falk then asked that if people wanted to go from the “out” to the “in” group, they needed to lean back towards the “in” group, yell out “ME” and the people in the “in” group line up in two lines across from and near to each other, like a channel, and catch the person who said  “ME”, carry them, and bring them into their side.  This “transfer” of a person happens with a good deal of energy used to pick up and carry, as well as coordinate with each other.  This energy represented the much needed ATP for active transport.  When there are too many people in the “in” group, (like too much real estate development on the shore), people from that group do the same to move to the “out” group.

Cell Volleyball

Two groups of students get into a circle holding hands, facing outward.  These two circles make two teams, and these teams play a game with a large physioball.  The ball is thrown from one team, without anyone in the team using his or her hands.  The opposite team catches the ball, also without using hands, and passes the ball through the group, which means the circle changes its forms a little, and then shoots it to the other team.  Points are won if the group can catch the ball, and if the group can pass the ball through the group, keeping their hands connected to each other.  As different groups got better at catching and passing, they also seemed to help their opponents get better at it.

Discussion and feedback:

Much of the discussion centered around how much teamwork was needed for most of these processes.  Ms. Powers described that indeed teamwork was a central part of the workings of our cells in our bodies.  Students also commented on how the cells need to communicate with each other, and when there weren’t enough helpers in the Active Transport game, others needed to come in and help.  Ms. Powers explained that this happened inside the cells as well; sometimes extra proteins were called on to aid the transport process.  The discussions of each game helped to clarify further the cellular processes inside each of our bodies.

Student responses:

Students were then asked how doing the movement games may have helped them reinforce their learning the material of the biology class.  They were also given the option of saying if it didn’t help them at all.  Where there were a few students for whom this was not a helpful method, many comments centered around the following statements:

“This class reinforced what we learned in the biology class.”

“I got to see it in action; this helped me know it.”

“This class brought it full circle; I learned it, I read it, and now I did it.”

“This class made me realize I knew it more than I thought I did.”

“It made more sense to me because of how it feels.  It’s not just memorizing.”

“I learned it because I am it.”

“I’m not going to lie – I thought you would make us choreograph the cytoplasm.  I wasn’t looking forward to this class.  But, I had fun and I really learned something.”

Stability and Instability Essays:

In the following week, Ms. Powers focused the class on the aspect of equilibrium. If cells are constantly looking for equilibrium, are we? Do we find it? Would we like it if we did?

Ms. Powers states: “In class, we brainstormed about the stabilities and instabilities of both themselves and the world.  They were to write about these stabilities and instabilities and think about what the world would be like if everything were stable (at equilibrium).  Then their final task was to write about how stability and instability in the world was similar to the instabilities and stabilities (equilibrium) in cells.

I believe that the majority of them made the connection from what we did with Jodi (Ms. Falk) and the in class brainstorming.  The movement exercise with Jodi allowed many of them to make the connections that they had not made from just the in-class work.”

Excerpts from Stability Papers:

Student A:

“Nothing can ever become truly stable. It’s almost like saying something is perfect, nothing is ever perfect. Life can’t ever be perfect or stable because everything can be improved upon, no matter what. It’s a good thing that nothing is stable, because if everything was, there wouldn’t be anything to look forward to or work towards. If the world did magically become stable, I feel like everything would soon become extremely bland and boring. There wouldn’t be anything to change. All people learn from their experiences and their mistakes, and if the whole world became stable, there wouldn’t be anything to learn from.

We need instability to thrive. We need to feel something different all the time, we need to encounter new problems and find a way to work through them. All this just makes us stronger people and allows us to know how to approach new things in the future. I wouldn’t have much to do with my time if the world was stable. I really have no idea what I would do because it’s just so unrealistic. I can’t imagine a stable life, a stable world.

These questions relate to the stability and equilibrium in cells. Cells are extremely hectic, and are not very orderly. It relates to how life is; nothing is ever perfect, and there is always something going on. Nothing stays the same; the chemistry of the cell is constantly changing and evolving. Just like life.”

Student B:

“I think that it is impossible for the world to become stable if we are also stable. Because when the human population is stable that means that all of us are using the world’s resources, and most of us do not give back to the world, most just take. But if there were no humans the world would thrive, it would be a forest rather than a slowly increasing industrial world.”

Student C:

“So, I think that the world and the people in it basically work on the same principle on which the cells do when they form equilibrium or balance out. Cells even out to create balance, or some kind of harmony, and that is for the most part how human life works. Just like the cells.”

Student D:

“What is stable in about the world: there is really not much that is stable about the world. However, I can honestly say that the socioeconomic diversity of our world is stable. It’s not really a good thing to have this kind of diversity, because is means that there will be poor people; those who get less than their share of the world’s resources.”

Student E:

“The world is loaded with stability, though it’s sometimes hard to identify because of the instability masking it.”

Student F:

“Cells are constantly searching for equilibrium, much like people are.”

Student G:

“Let’s go with that – the world becoming stable. Would life become pointless if it did become stable? Is the point in life to try and “equalize” who we are and all around us? How I think of stability in our world is peace. Once we have stability, we’ll have peace. I just think it’d be kind of hippy-esque, almost. Playing music, singing, laughing, joking, dancing . . . “

Student H:

“Stability and equilibrium in cells is very similar to the stability and instability of the world around us. Cells have to work very hard to achieve stability, and when they do, the stability changes rapidly. This is like the world, because the stability in the world is also changing rapidly.”

Student H:

“I don’t think we could be stable even if we tried, although I do think one of the faults of the human race is the inability to accept instability.”

Student I:

“All of these questions I have answered in this paper relate to the stability and equilibrium in a cell, because cells are hardly ever stable. It is incredibly difficult for cells to be stable, because they are constantly changing. This relates to the real world, because everything around you in the world is also constantly changing, whether you notice it or not.”