Published March 01 2017


Starting the organelle wars

In 2011, I was looking for a way to invigorate teaching cellular organelles to high-school freshmen.

I am lucky enough to teach at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois, which is about 45 minutes northwest of Chicago. For me, teaching is a family affair. My mom was a third-grade teacher for most of her career, my dad was a junior-high science teacher and department chair, and my brother is a physics teacher and head of the math and science department at Crystal Lake South High School in the Chicago suburbs.

The community teachers and students are proud of our school, where 97.1 percent of our students graduate and 84.3 percent of our students are college-bound. The students have an average ACT score of 25 and, most importantly, they are motivated, respectful kids who are fun to work with. The overwhelming majority of our parents are supportive and involved in their kids’ education. I myself graduated from Fremd in 1994 and then was hired back to teach there in 1998 after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in secondary education.

I was struggling to teach the unit on cellular organelles, because the unit can be a tough one to get students excited about. I had tried more cell-organelle projects than I cared to count over 13 years. So, in 2011, like most resourceful teachers, I went to the internet to find inspiration. There, I came across a project by Marna Chamberlain at Piedmont High School in California that piqued my interest.

Chamberlain had her students complete a project that involved campaigning for a cell organelle to be elected the most important organelle. I immediately fell in love with the idea of having my students run a campaign. The wonderful part of the project was that students not only had to promote their own organelle but also had to run a smear campaign against five other organelles. This requirement served the purpose of making sure that the students learned about more than just their own organelle.

One of the other requirements of the project was that the students create extra campaign materials, such as fliers, shirts and bumper stickers. Here, I added my own twist to the project. I encouraged the students to take their campaign to social media by creating Twitter accounts for their organelles. Since each account was in the name of the organelle and not in the name of the students, I did not hear any complaints from students or parents about creating the account. In addition, because the use of social media fell in the extras category, students could fulfill the requirement for that category of the project without using Twitter if they or their parents were not comfortable with the idea. The reason for adding the twist was pretty simple. My students were always on their phones and on Twitter anyway, so why not take the project to where my students were spending a lot of their time?

The use of Twitter put the project over the top. In 2011, Twitter wasn’t as powerful as it is today. My students followed each other’s accounts, and I followed them all to monitor the accounts. Everything stayed within the small circle of students in my class.

The next year was an entirely different story. It was an election year with President Barack Obama running for re-election against Mitt Romney, so the class was already buzzing with a little more excitement than usual when it came to campaigning. On the first day of the project, one of my groups mentioned that someone they didn’t know was tweeting at them. Being relatively new to Twitter at the time, I was concerned as to who might be interacting with my 14-year-old students. It turned out that the person tweeting them was a researcher from England who specializes in studying the Golgi apparatus. Her name is Anne Osterrieder from the Oxford Brookes University, and she had been searching for information about the Golgi apparatus on Twitter when she came across my student’s Twitter account.

At that point, the project exploded. Osterrieder and her colleagues began tweeting with my students’ organelle accounts, prodding them with higher-level questions, holding them accountable for spreading misinformation, and engaging them in a way that my students had not expected from a freshman biology project in high school.

Soon we had scientists from around England, France and the U. S. tweeting with us. One of those scientists, John Runions, also of Oxford Brookes University, has his own BBC radio show under the persona of “Dr. Molecule” and discussed our project on his show. Runions also is the person who developed the #organellewars hashtag.

One of the main outcomes of the project was that my students realized that what they tweeted was going to be fact-checked. They began using Google Scholar and citing their sources, because they had a live and knowledgeable audience watching their every move. The quality of information being produced by my students about their organelles and the ones that they were smearing improved as the project continued, as did their knowledge of the structure and function of all of the cell’s organelles.

Over the past four years, one of the big changes I have made is that I have required that smears of other organelles not be related to diseases that are caused by problems with the organelle. I found that students spent time researching the names of diseases that were caused by organelles but were not focusing on the specific role of the organelle in the disease. Now the smear campaigns must relate to the structure and function of each organelle, not the diseases it causes. The smear campaigns definitely have become more useful in terms of student learning. This year, it also was interesting to see the number of made-up statistics students would add to their tweets about the number of people supporting them as well as the use of monikers. The trends of the 2016 election definitely made their way into our classroom election.

The #organellewars project has changed the way I approach teaching high-school students about cellular organelles. It allows my students to interact with scientists who are experts in cell biology. It holds them accountable for learning about their organelles, and it injects an element of fun and excitement into my classroom that had been missing with other cell-organelle projects.

Bradley Graba Bradley Graba is a high school science teacher. Follow him on Twitter.