Friday, April 6, 2012

Giant Menacing Microbes

If you have never seen the science version of beanie babies (sorry I'm dating myself here) called Giant Microbes, you are in for a treat! 

As a classroom teacher I used these stuffed "animals" in my classroom as a way to engage students with microbes. Because microbes (short for microorganisms) are, you guessed it, microscopic--students, often have a difficult time conceptualizing these little critters and the impact they have on our world. And worse, even after a microbiology lesson, they still incorrectly assume that a majority of microorganisms are pathogenic (cause disease)! Microbes have a huge variety ranging from bacteria and viruses, but also protozoans, microscopic algae, and some fungi.  Using Giant Microbes helps kids to see the huge variety, not just in sheer number, but also in their  structure as well. 

The Giant Microbes website has them categorized into many different categories such as health, exotics....
calamities (which includes ebola, my personal favorite virus), tropicals, venereals, and many many more. There is even a search feature in case you are looking for something specific. 

After visiting the Giant Microbes booth in the exhibit hall at NSTA in Indianapolis, I was reminded of just how much I enjoyed these stuffed teaching tools. But I will admit, for me, they were more about "being cute" and having geeky science decorations in my office than utilizing them as an actual teaching tool. So I decided to set out and find teachers who are using them beyond just passing them around during a lecture. 

The teachers I've talked with said they appreciate the tag that comes with each Giant Microbe because it shows a micrograph of what it actually looks like, and includes facts that are unique to that particular specimen. Laura from New York said she addresses the personification of the microbes with her students. All of the Giant Microbes have eyes and other  scientifically inaccurate enhancements. For example  Mono has long eyelashes and the flesh eating bacteria has a knife and fork. She uses this as a starting place to get students talking about the structure of communicable diseases and how they function. Elizabeth teaches 7th grade and uses the egg and sperm to help student become more comfortable using the correct terminology.  Marie from New York uses the HIV virus as a way to help students take turns talking during a whole class discussion. They call the game, "I've got AIDS!" and they can only talk if they are holding the virus. Oh, kids and their sense of humor! And Jackie uses 18 different Giant Microbes and has students make their own dichotomous key! Now that's a great idea! 

However by far, the best activity I found came from Julie Boker (the Assistant Director of Teacher Enrichment Programs at the University of Florida Center for Precollegiate Education and Training). She shared with me an extensive activity that she designed for a teacher institute that uses two sets of 15 Giant Microbes each! That's a whopping 30 microbes total. She was gracious enough to share the activity with us! 

The "Menacing Microbe" activity was designed with support of a HHMI Precollege Award. During the 2 week teacher workshop, Julie had the Giant Microbes hanging from the ceiling. The photo shows  two teachers, Eileen and Maria, showing off their personal favorite microbe!  

After a 5 minute bell ringer activity (to get students  thinking) Students are provided a card that describes either a:
  • Disease Description: that includes a graphic description of a disease including the symptoms it may cause; or a
  • Disease & scientific microbe name with an explanation of how the microbe functions. 

The stuffed Giant Microbes are placed all around the room, and students are instructed to move around the room talking with other individuals in order to find their "match." Once they do, they find their Giant Microbe and use the information on the attached tag, along with the information on the cards they each have to answer questions on their student handout. 
The beauty of this activity, is that it gets kids out of their seats, interacting with one another, and then later sharing their microbe with the rest of the class.    

Here is a link to the Student Handout. Its a pdf file in Google Docs. Its 2 pages and gives your students something to do after they have matched the Microbe with its description.  

Here is Julie's Teacher Lesson Plan that includes everything you need to conduct the Menacing Microbe Activity, complete with the 30 disease descriptions and corresponding microbes. 

Thanks again, to Julie for sharing this activity with us! 


  1. Glad you liked the workbox tags, I hae more on the way. It is so funny that you have this post up! I was just going through my old classroom things and came across 2 bags of microbes. I can't wait to share them with my girls.

    1. Yeah, aren't they great. If you think of new and cool ways to really USE them, not just for decoration, please come back here and share! :)


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