CancerQuest: Cell Division Gone Wrong (Day 1 of 3)

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SWBAT compare and contrast the cell cycles of normal and cancerous cells.

Big Idea

Get your students connecting the cell cycle to their daily lives through the use of medical treatments and explanations of cancer.

Notes for the Teacher

This is a three day lesson series exploring current cancer treatments.  One student last year told me with pride in his eyes, "This project was IT for me."  Time and time again, students tell me that this project connected for them.  When I ask them why, they tell me the topic is one that matters to them and that they felt they were learning things that were directly related to their lives.  Some students told me they recognized the names of medications their grandparents have used and that although the vocabulary was challenging, that they understood just enough to motivate them to go further in their research or through check ins with their teammate or me.  When the topic is relevant, students will go so far!  I also build in time to do the research in the classroom so that I can provide additional support.  

Over the past few years, I have been focused on and committed to connecting each of our topics to student priorities and this particular project is a great example of the success of this approach in engaging kids and pushing them to pursue their level of science understanding.  

During Day 1, students explore their options on the CancerQuest website.  Standard(s): W.9-10.1eW.9-10.2bW.9-10.2dSL.9-10.1cSL.9-10.3SL.9-10.4RST.9-10.1RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4RST.9-10.5HS-LS3-1HS-LS3-2XC-CE-HS-1XC-CE-HS-2XC-SF-HS-1

On Day 2, students work to create their projects. Standard(s): W.9-10.1eW.9-10.2bW.9-10.2dSL.9-10.1cSL.9-10.3SL.9-10.4RST.9-10.1RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4RST.9-10.5HS-LS3-1HS-LS3-2XC-CE-HS-1XC-CE-HS-2XC-SF-HS-1

On Day 3, students create a public display of their findings so that others can benefit from their work. Standard(s): W.9-10.1eW.9-10.2bW.9-10.2dSL.9-10.1cSL.9-10.3SL.9-10.4RST.9-10.1RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4RST.9-10.5HS-LS3-1HS-LS3-2XC-CE-HS-1XC-CE-HS-2XC-SF-HS-1

Reviewing Concepts: Cancer Cells vs. Normal Cells

10 minutes

1.  Ask students to review their normal cells vs. cancer cells notes document.  

2.  Using the spokesperson protocol, ask student groups to discuss the following two prompts:

What cancer treatments do I already know about?

What questions do I have about how doctors treat and try to cure cancer?


3. As you field responses, highlight the primary three treatments they will most likely be familiar with (and are often outlined in biology textbooks):  surgery, radiation, chemotherapy.  Briefly outline these three traditional approaches:

  • Surgery involves cutting out the tumor to stop tumor growth and is often used in conjunction with another treatment.  Sometimes there are missed cells left over at the tumor site and additional treatments are necessary.
  • Radiation therapy involves aiming UV rays near the cancer site in order to kill off the tumor cells.  Unfortunately, this process also kills off normal cells too, making the patient vulnerable to infection and not all cancers can be treated with radiation, specifically those that do not involve an actual organ, like cancers of the blood.  There are a wide variety of side effects to this treatment.
  • Chemotherapy uses a drug cocktail to target and kill cancer cells.  Chemotherapy drugs are becoming increasingly sophisticated and able to more specifically target only cancer cells for destruction, leaving normal cells intact. There are a wide variety of side effects to this treatment. 

4.  Tell students that today they will begin an exploration of contemporary, innovative cancer treatments that scientists are currently using to treat patients.  Tell that that your goal is for them to gain knowledge about something that interests them and to connect what we know about how cancer cells work to the ways we can fight it with medication and other treatments.

  • Note:  Students will be incredibly excited about this individual project work! Their interest in cancer is high and personally connected to their experiences with the disease at home or from the news and it is something they think about when they think of an adult life.  

The Classroom Flow: Introducing the Project

10 minutes

1.  Tell students that we will now talk about our specific project work and begin the process of researching potential cancer treatments they would each like to learn more about. 

2.  Pass out the cancer quest document and rubric and give students a few minutes to read the documents quietly to themselves.   

3.  Go over the assignment with the class.  The major points to emphasize include:

  • Students will be working in pairs but on their own individual topics.  The teams are being formed as a collaborative support team as they work through challenging science research ideas.  When students turn in their work, they will turn in both of their individual pieces as a team, stapled together with both of the partners listed as authors.
  • Students need to take the time to look at the many resources on the web resource.  The goal is to research something that interests them and that is new to them (i.e.: not surgery, radiation, chemotherapy).
  • The writing portion would be written as a character and in the first person: for example, a doctor writing a letter with recommendations for treatment of a patient or a researcher giving a talk at a medical conference

4.  Take questions from the group and pass out the CancerQuest Research checklist for additional planning support.

  • Note: Most students will be ready to start.  Some will have specific detailed questions about writing as a character; I find that it is best to have students focus today on the topic selection phase and leave the writing clarifications for when they are actually writing so that we have something to look at and work with together.   

5.  Emphasize to students that you are here to help them work through any background information they feel they might need or to decipher challenging terminology.

Note:  I added additional requirements this year:

  • Two sources were to come from our library database resources.  I added this piece because of the lesson we completed with the librarian in a previous unit to familiarize ourselves with database resources available at our school and digital literacy/web evaluation best practices.
  • One diagram needed to be included in the body of their treatment writing to help with their reader's understanding of the treatment they researched for the project.  This diagram needed to be labeled, in color, drawn by hand (no print outs), and captioned so that the reader could see the connection between the drawing and the words.

The Classroom Flow: Researching, Refining, Discussing Options and Interests

20 minutes

1.  Tell students that they will have the rest of the session to begin exploring the CancerQuest website resources about various cancer treatments.  

2.  Remind students that they need to first check in with you to share who their work partner will be.  At that point, they can find computer stations next to each other, sit together, and begin to explore.  

  • Note:  My goal in structuring this as a hybrid pair/individual project is simple.  I want students to explore topics of individual interest, but I also realize that the level of source material we are using is challenging both in terms of academic language and science literacy.  By working in teams, students can check in together to decipher terms, corroborate ideas, and come to me as a pair with questions that they have fully explored before asking for teacher support.  Have a partner also adds to the accountability piece of project management and deadlines in a way that yields positive results.  

3.  Before shifting to individual/pair work, remind students that you do not expect them to have chosen a topic by the end of the session and that is in fact the rarity in your experience.  Keep repeating and emphasizing the concept of "going slow to go fast," meaning that the more time students spend carefully evaluating options and choosing a topic, the less time it will take them to create their finished project.

4. When you are closely observing your class as they work at the computer stations, you will see lots of individual and collaborative focused work:

  • Students will be selecting topics to read about or watch video clips about on the Cancerquest website.
  • Students will be checking in with each other about vocabulary.
  • Students will come up to you to discuss their ideas for a topic as well as a character.
  • Students will be looking at the assignment guidelines document for clarity about what is expected for their final product.

Because the topic is interesting, the website resources both engaging and challenging, and session short, you will not see many/any off task behaviors.  If you are concerned about this, set a seating arrangement so that your students who need focusing support are closest to you.  Alternatively, you can use laptops in the classroom space where you control the seating more directly rather than the computer lab.  I try to change up the space we are using to signify this switch in my expectations for individual choice and independent learning within this set of project guidelines.

3.  Announce that you will take project ideas the last ten minutes of the class for students that are ready to share them with you.  Continue to emphasize the benefits of a slow exploration process for better project results.  

  • Note:  In general, I find that students who rush to sign up wind up coming back at least once over the week to change their topic idea.  Breaking that habit of signing up before all the 'good topics' are gone takes a bit of work, but it is possible, especially since there are so many ideas available for them to look at on the web resource.  Emphasizing how helpful it is to really figure out what they want to do also helps keep them on track and feelings of anxiety or stress low.  Push back on the student instinct to rush into a topic sign up they don't really feel invested in just to make sure they have one.  I tend to question kids pretty seriously, offer specific suggestions as to where to look on the website, and encourage them to take their time and that together we will find the best idea for them.  Ask students to commit to quiet search time at home and a follow up check in with you.
  • If students are really interested in a topic lightly covered on the web source or one that isn't on the website, I often allow them to go to the library to talk about it with the librarian.  This is a rarity in part due to the sheer amount of information available on the website and the interests of the students, but at the same time I always make a point to check in with our great library staff whenever we are starting a new research project so that they can be ready for our kids when they come in to get more information on their own.

4.  Check out this Cancerquest student work sample to see a high quality example of what you can expect student pairs to turn in at the end of this lesson series.  This student group reported out to me that the checklist of expectations for turn in was helpful for them as they planned and organized their work.

And now on to Day 2!