Cell Division Gone Wrong: An Introduction to Cancer

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SWBAT to compare cancer cells to normal cells and relate cancer to the cell cycle and the cell division processes of mitosis and meiosis

Big Idea

Relate cell division to student life and prior knowledge in this engaging discussion about the unique properties of cancerous cells.

Notes for the Teacher

Today's lesson really connects an overarching concept in biology (cell division) to students' every day lives in relation to family experiences with cancer.  I have worked with this material over the past few years and each year students are incredibly engaged and connected to the conversation.  The discussion helps set the students up for the next aspect of cancer research:  treatment.  

The Classroom Flow: Starting the Conversation

15 minutes

1.  Using the spokesperson protocol, ask students to discuss the following two prompts:

What do you know about cancer?

What do you want to know?

2.   Many students will know small facts about specific cancers and many of them will want to know more about cures and treatments for cancer patients.  There will also be a few passionate students who say that what they want to know is how to cure it for everyone everywhere, which simply reinforces just how amazing our kids really are.  Overall, their knowledge about the molecular workings of cancer cells, like that of the general public, will be very low, making this discussion today especially important and interesting to students.

3. Thank students for their ideas and encourage them in their questioning and knowledge.  Remind students that you chose to cover this issue in detail because it is a medical condition that impacts so many of our families over the years.  Gently tell students that cancer can be a stressful topic and if they are feeling any concerns about exploring it due to things going on in their own lives or families, to please come see you so that together you can figure out a plan that can help ease that discomfort. 

3.  Tell students that today you will be discussing the five major ways in which cancer cells are different than normal cells.

The Classroom Flow: Discussing the Properties of Cancer Cells vs. Normal Cells

20 minutes

1.  Use the normal cells vs. cancer cells notes document to discuss the five major areas in which cancer cells deviate from normal cell activity: onco- and tumor suppressor genes, growth factors, density dependent inhibition, anchorage dependence, and angiogenesis.  

2.  I ask students to take notes while we are talking but that my notes will be available to them after the class session.

Things to consider:

I keep the tone casual here:  I don't use a powerpoint slide presentation during the class session, saving that as an online support for later and I don't hand out my notes document until the end of the class period.  Students will be really interested in what you have to say--it will be new to them and about something that has probably impacted their family in some way.

Breaking down the official terms into manageable ideas is the key.  Connecting these phrases to words they know like tumors, benign/malignant, and metastasis is a motivator for students--they see that this topic as interesting, relatable and understandable for them throughout this casual conversation/lecture session.

Be really sensitive to the class--I make sure to share with the kids from the beginning of the unit that we will be talking about cancer.  This allows students to come to share with you if something is happening in their lives now that might make this hard for them to hear about.  I have only had two students come to me about it and on both occasions, responding early and sympathetically gave the students the courage to explore the topic in this neutral space.



The Classroom Flow: Student Group Discussion and Writing for Understanding

15 minutes

1.  Ask students to move to their lab table.  Pass out an index card with a number from 1-5 to each lab pair.  Tell each lab pair it is their job to write out a brief explanation with a diagram about the cancer topic listed on their card:

  • onco/tumor supressor genes
  • growth factors
  • density dependent inhibition (tumors, malignant/benign)
  • anchorage dependence (metastasis)
  • angiogenesis


2.  This should be a quick activity, not an extended studio session intended to produce high quality visual products.  The intent here is to have students think about the major characteristics that make cancer different from normal cells and to explain it briefly using pictures and words.  A sample student card for angiogenesis shows the level of detail we are looking for at this stage of understanding:  basic drawing with some text.  The bigger explanations with more terminology and connections to other characteristics of cancer cells are coming up later in this unit.

3.  Ask student pairs to show each other their cards and explain their card to their partner. If time permits, have them repeat this process with the second pair of students at their lab table.

  • Note:  Alternatively, you could ask student pairs to exchange cards and explain the other person's card to them.  I have not done this before but am thinking about it for next year's lesson.


4.  Tell students that you will continue your conversation about cancer tomorrow when we discuss modern cancer treatments and work on individual projects related to cancer and their specific interests in the characteristics and treatment of cancer cells.