So yesterday Jon came home from school with a funny look on his face.
"Hi, Honey," I said. "Did you have a good day?"
"Yes." He did not elaborate. He did not meet my eyes. He fiddled with his fingers.
"What's the matter?" I asked. Famous last words.
"I, um, forgot about a science project," he replied.
My heart sank. "When was it due?"
"Tomorrow," he said, little guessing how that one word filled me with hope. Tomorrow means we can actually do something about it. Tomorrow means the late grade is not already in the book. Tomorrow we can handle. As my heart began a slow waltz, he said, "We have to make an edible model of a cell. I was thinking I could make a pizza."
I thought of a pizza with meat and cheese and otherwise pricey, imported ingredients being carted off to school to be poked, breathed on and possibly licked by about 100 middle school students.
I said, "No. I think we will make a cake."
We could make a plant cell or an animal cell. Plant cells can be rectangular. We (I) decided on a 9 x 13 rectangle cake. The cakepan could be the cell wall. Brilliant! One cell part covered with no extra inconvenience.
I had an Aldi's yellow cake mix. Aldi's makes good cake mix. Plus, it is only $0.79, so that was a big plus. It called for three eggs. I told Jonathan that two eggs would serve our purpose just fine. No need to waste eggs on a science project.
Jon mixed up the cake himself and poured it into the pan, put it in the oven and set the timer. He even tested it and got it out of the oven. Clearly, I made him do some of the work.
When the cake was out of the oven, we went to Wegman's to the bulk foods candy section. I had told Jon to make a list of the cell parts we needed to illustrate, along with ideas for kinds of candy that would be good to use for each part.
We ran into a number of confused looking teenaged boys milling around bulk foods. Jon knew them. They did not have lists. Most of them did not have parents (how did they get there?). Fortunately, with both a mother and a list, Jon was quite efficient at picking out his candy. We spent approximately $0.62 on small portions of bulk candy, and $2.19 on Fruit by the Foot, which I have never bought before, but I found it next to the oatmeal (?).
Then it was time for Jon to go to youth group.
And time for me to get creative.
I decided that in order to illustrate the cell membrane, I would line my other 9 x 13 cake pan with plastic wrap (the plastic wrap being the membrane), and transfer the cake to that pan.
Unfortunately, the cake broke into about 86 pieces when I tried to take it out of the original pan (probably because I told Jon to skimp on the eggs). But I have done cake projects for school before. Many times. I am a seasoned cake-projecter, so I did not panic. I calmly fit the pieces of cake into the pan, over the cell membrane (a.k.a. plastic wrap) like a jigsaw puzzle, and made a mental note to make a generous amount of frosting.
I cut a hole out of the smashed cake. The hole was to symbolize a "Cell Vacuole." Vacuoles are bubbles in the cell where other things are not. I thought this was another brilliant idea. I was on a roll.
Then I made frosting. I made it with powdered sugar, hydrogenated vegetable shortening and water. No milk. No butter. No vanilla. This cake was all about appearances. And frugality. I did use green food coloring, even though I know, I know, I know the green in plant cells comes from the chloroplasts. I just figured that the green from the chloroplasts probably permeates the cytoplasm to some extent, and makes it appear green. It was a plant cell. It needed to be green.
About the time I finished frosting it, Jonno came home.
I made "nametags" for the little cell parts on the computer. We cut drinking straws into sections and made slits in the top so we could stick the little tags in and make signs to label our project.
Jon actually got to do the final assembly.
This is what it looked like:
The nucleus was a large yellow gumball. DJ pointed out that this was very much not to scale, but it was the biggest gumball they had. I thought later that I could have used an apple or an orange instead. (Except, I really like apples and oranges, and the gumball only cost us $0.02.)
The mitochondria were Mike & Ike's.
The ribosomes were chocolate chips.
The lysosomes were "burnt French peanuts" (?). I have never eaten these, but Jonathan said they looked the part.
The chloroplasts were green Skittles.
The (frosted) cake itself stood for the cytoplasm.
I was particularly proud of our last two creations. First I will try to explain how we did the golgi body. We bought some candy whose name I do not know. I always buy this candy at Christmas, because I really like it, but I don't know its name. The wrapper says, "Sunkist," but that is the brand, not the name of the actual candy. It is little individually wrapped patties of jellied fruit juice, coated with sugar crystals. We took three, unwrapped them, and pressed them together in a stack to make a golgi body. It was pretty cool.
The piece de resistance, however, was our endoplasmic reticulum. We took Fruit by the Foot and wrapped it back and forth in a curvey, accordian style wave. Then Jon said, "Wait! There're supposed to be ribosomes floating around in the endoplasmic reticulum!" So we rewrapped the wave, inserting chocolate chips (which, you may remember, are our ribosomes).
Another view (you can see our super-awesome vacuole in this shot):
Do you think he learned anything? I'm surprised the schools can get by with assigning projects like this. What about the poor kids whose parents don't have the time or the money or the inclination to help them? If nothing else, a project like this separates the kids with supportive parents from those without.