If you read What is a Microbe, you came across an illustration of microbial size that compared different microbes to common features of a baseball park. Such comparisons can help you put into perspective how small microbes are compared to, say, a human cell using objects whose size is more familiar to you. That’s what this activity is all about. You’ll compare the sizes of different microbes to the size of a very familiar item—a human hair.
Note: This activity will take about 1 hour.
Note: If you do this activity in a parking lot, choose a day when that lot is not being used. You should definitely have at least one friend with you if not a parent or other adult. At least one person should keep a lookout for approaching cars at all times. Just be careful!
1. Examine your single hair both with and without the magnifying glass. Note how thin it is if you hold it at one end and look down at the tip. Depending on how thick your hair is, you may just barely be able to see it without the magnifying glass. The average human hair is 0.1 millimeters wide, or one-tenth of one millimeter wide. That’s pretty tiny.
2. In your open space, use your meter stick to measure out an area that is 10 meters long. Mark off this 10-meter area with your chalk, string or tape, whatever works best for your chosen space. This 10-meter area will represent the width of your hair, that tiny width that you were barely able to see without a magnifying glass.
3. Choose one of the microbes from the first column of the Microbe Reference Chart. Think about how its size might compare to the width of your hair. Using the model size listed in column 4 of the Chart and your meter stick to measure, draw a picture of this microbe (or mark off its length and width with string or tape) somewhere beside the 10-meter area you already marked off. Once again, hold up your hair and see how tiny its width is and compare the actual size of the hair with the actual size (column 2) of the microbe.
4. Repeat step 3 with additional microbes listed in the Reference Chart. You can do as many as you like. Use different colored chalk, tape or string for each microbe so you can remember which markings refer to which microbe.
5. When you’re finished drawing as many microbes as you’d like, compare the sizes and shapes of the microbes you've drawn. You have just created a reference model for microbial size.
6. Clean up your remaining pieces of chalk and remove tape or string when you’re done.
This experiment is based on an activity developed by the National Association of Biology Teachers.