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A colleague of mine has a kid in junior high school (she is 13 for context). She has a project where she needs to make a simulation of cell structure and components. Similar to the example image below:

Diagram of Cell Biology

Image from tyrocity.com

What she wants to do is make something where she can suspend objects inside a transparent medium. That medium should be able to be handled and not fall apart easily (or at all). The material should support a mold so that the shape of the end result can be controlled (like a muffin tray or cake pan). Since this is for a kids project cost will be a factor as well.

Jello or gelatin seems like a simple choice except for the fact that it would be too fragile to handle. I had initially thought about resins but the cost would be a factor for a simple project like this.

Given the loose criteria above what could we use to make a "cell" and suspend some object inside it. (She was going to use candy to represent the various parts!)

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This is seems like a good application of DIY sensory bags

You fill a zip bag with hair gel, whatever objects you want inside, and food coloring if desired. We seal the tops of the bag with colored tape.

We've filled them with toys, beads, glitter and whatever plastic or waterproof objects we have on hand. Even cut off pieces of drinking straws can work. In this case, whatever resembles cell anatomy.

You can double bag them for more durability. They're able to withstand most handling, except for certain bites from toddlers (so teens should have no issue).

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Gummy bears!

Stronger than gelatin, yet "flexible" to handle the other requirements. Various colors for those willing to sort an entire bag.

One heats the gummy bears in a double boiler to avoid burning them and when liquid, pours the goop into the mold. You could use plastic strip material taped into the desired shapes, perhaps held on the outside by cardboard cut-outs, akin to the old Operation game. If you need a bone-shaped cell, cut a bone shape in the cardboard and hot glue strips of acetate or similar material to the inside of the cut-out.

Perhaps you would be able to find appropriately shaped candies for some of the internal items in the cell, as it would be challenging to construct tiny molds of suitable shape for those.

If you have access to a 3D printer, creating molds is limited only to one's creative talent with the 3D modeling software.

How do you keep the students (and adults) from eating the results?

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You can use gelatin, just prepare it to be more durable. I would suggest using this recipe for Knox Blox from the Knox website, and just leave out the "fruit flavor jelly powder." Or search for DIY gummy bears--probably any of those recipes will work. If you use a recipe that calls for fruit juice as a flavoring, leave the juice out and replace it with plain water--just make sure you maintain the proportion of gelatin to liquid as is given in the final recipe.

I would experiment a bit--I wouldn't suggest pouring the gelatin directly over the candy that you have set into the mold, because you use boiling water to dissolve the gelatin and that might cause the candy to melt. I would try pouring the gelatin mixture into the mold, let it set up just a tiny bit--maybe 1/2 hour (this is where the experimentation comes in) and then place the candies into their proper positions, and let the gelatin finish setting.

  • Would pectin help with durability? – user24 Feb 7 '17 at 5:23
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    I agree that gelatin would be suitable. I one accidentally made extremely resilient Jello by putting in the wrong amount of water :) If the "blox" recipe is still too fragile, try another batch with even less water. – Erica Feb 7 '17 at 14:38
  • I would be careful with pectin. You know how they say not to include certain fruits in jello...somewhere in the back of my head I seem to remember that that was related to an interaction between the gelatin and the pectin. I could be wrong, however. – magerber Feb 7 '17 at 18:07
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What about using clear or tinted slime? Like the kind you can get in kids tubs. That will conform to a clear tub happily making it seem like a petri-dish. You can also then remove most of the part representations or separate them out if you need to for separate lessons.

It's a good way to show a membrane too. Allows items in and to pass though, but also holds itself together rather well. Unless stretched out by students of course! Only negative side is you might find it absorbs a lot of dirt if passed around.

You can make your own slime with borax too, no need to buy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qAqtYpi2wQ

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