I want candy! (boom boom boom ba-dum boom)

Candy can be a useful teaching tool, even if you don’t advocate eating it. It’s well known, comes in lots of varieties, and it’s cheap if you buy it in bulk. It can also be used after its expiration date – great for construction, not consumption. I have used it to illustrate cell and organ structure; architectural design and geometric structures; and, by far my most favorite, dichotomous keys and taxonomy.

Candy Cell Labeled

Test plant cell model

I was first introduced to taxonomy in high school. We had to know the classification of every animal we caught for Marine Biology or dissected in Biology. It wasn’t until college, when we were given the oddest assortment of corks, stoppers, nuts, bolts, nails and screws, that I was introduced to dichotomous keys directly. I am addicted to sorting and organizing, so that assignment was one I thoroughly enjoyed. I had to determine relationships, categorize each “specimen,” name it, and create a key so that anyone could figure out which specimen was which. Loved it!

Years later, in a Texas Master Naturalist training class, an instructor used a simple candy dichotomous key to show us how the key worked before letting us tackle the identification of fish. Have you ever noticed the chin barbels on a croaker? I almost missed them. Dichotomous keys can help scientists to identify field specimen and hopefully new species as well.
The idea to use candy to ease the uninitiated into dichotomous keys was brilliant! So of course I borrowed the idea to use with kids. Now, with kids I kept it simple: “use this key to identify the unknown piece of candy – your ‘specimen.'”

To make sure it worked, I made up names for the candy. Almost everyone knows what a Hershey’s kiss is, but what about Smackus pennsylvius? It’s the name I came up with for the kiss – Hershey’s HQ is in Pennsylvania and in cartoons a kiss comes with a pucker-smack sound, hence Smackus (there are a lot of different Hershey kisses, worth their own genus) and pennsylvius after their origin. You can get a lot more complicated by assigning other species names to each kiss, since they do vary and I assume cannot interbreed. I used the original kiss in the key, so went with the origin for the species name.

Before I get too carried away (and I will) here is a simple key I created for one class. See if you can follow the key below to find the names of Smarties, Jolly Ranchers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Candy Cane and Mar’s Minis Mix (mixed bag mini Mars brand bars).

Candy samples for dichotomous key

In any dichotomous key, you always start at #1. Like a choose-your-own-adventure story, you are given two paths from which to choose. Each number has 2 choices, or characteristics, that describe the specimen. Each step usually gives you an answer or a direction (go to #3). You may skip a step in a key based on the directions you follow. If your specimen doesn’t fit into either characteristic, go back a step and see if you made the right choice. By observing carefully, you can get the right answers. Of course if your specimen doesn’t fit at all, you may have discovered a new species!

1a. Wrapper is metallic material
1b. Wrapper is non-metallic material
go to #2
go to #3
2a. Shape is circular
2b. Shape is rectangular
Gooberis moosi
Rufusastrum micros
3a. Packaged in groups
3b. Packaged individually
Tarticus owlii
go to #4
4a. Multiple colors present
4b. Multiple colors absent
Noelia crutchii
Bombre merrii

See if you can reason out the names once you have matched them up with their candy. I used my imagination, a good dose of silliness (good for the heart) and some actual Latin roots to come up with these names. The great thing about Latin is you can have a lot of fun trying to pronounce it as well! I’ll give answers if you are interested – please comment.

This is a very basic key; it only lists 5 specimens. which could suggest that there are only 5 species of candy. We know that isn’t the case, but remember that this was for kids and maybe the first time they had tried this.

To actually try and classify (and name) all of the candy you can find in a grocery store gets a lot more complicated. But for someone addicted to classification or candy, it sounds to me like a good time. Happy sorting!

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25 thoughts on “I want candy! (boom boom boom ba-dum boom)

  1. Chris, I didn’t realize that I had been eating all your dichotomous keys! Sorry…

  2. Christine – This is very clever. What an innovative way to teach a topic most of us have trouble grasping.

  3. Thanks this is a good idea, just one question. when we eat it will it taste odd with toast on the bottom because i have project to do like this and i want to either make a cake plant cell or a candy plant cell.

  4. Thanks Daneila! I used regular bread at home but you could just as easily use a big sugar cookie and frosting as the cytosol. I have seen pictures of round cake-sized cells that were very impressive or even the pizza-style version (vegetables can be cut into lots of different shapes). But if you are making a class-sized cell that everyone can have a slice of, you might try visiting a giant cookie vendor and ordering it without decorations (the chocolate chips in the cookie could even be protein gates embedded within the membrane – not to scale but still inventive). I hope you have fun with the project and I would love to see a picture!

  5. Thank you this helped me so much when i had to teach 2nd graders! and im in 7th grade! this was soo very helpful! thanks again!

  6. Thank you for your questions! The assumption with this particular model is that the cell has been cut open to see the interior organelles. So in that sense it is a 3D model but with only one point of view. As for the endoplasmic reticulum, I used Bubble Tape in this model. I added sprinkles to part of the folded Bubble Tape to represent the Rough ER (since it has ribosomes bound to its surface) and left part of the Tape unsprinkled for Smooth ER. Notice the unbound ribosomes randomly placed in the cell as well. This model was made using supplies I had around the house, attempting to match organelle function with appearance, not for flavor. When I used in class, I changed some of the materials. Like using marshmallow creme instead of peanut butter (possible allergen). A visit to the candy aisle of the grocery store may provide your own inspiration!

  7. Congratulations! I believe in this model, I used red Twizzlers again, only cut in half to show channels of the golgi apparatus.

  8. Hannah, I am not certain to which project in this blog you are referring. If you are asking about the candy cell picture, I just used things I had at home already. In my previous replies you will find some of the candy pieces I used but beef jerky might work just as well. Whatever you have plus a little imagination will go a long way. Have fun!

  9. christine, i was wandering since i have a science project that i have to make a animal cell model do you think it’s a good idea of making a cake then put those things on it after or should i just make it out of plastic or any thing else? Like i was wandering also should i worry about not finding the perfect picture for this so i can get a good grade? please write back ASAP (as soon as possible)

  10. Marisa, when I first started this project there were many pictures online of cakes and pizzas students and teachers had made. You could make a cake and just decorate the top but for such a large model, you could also make it more three-dimensional by cutting 1/4 wedge of the cake out and inserting the organelles into the cut surface of the cake. This would require a better understanding of the interior structure of the cell and it’s organelles, than just decorating the surface. If you need the guidance of a drawing, other than what is in a textbook, you might try Griffin’s The Biology Coloring Book. I have found it at Half Price Books if your local library doesn’t have it. Do keep in mind that a cake doesn’t last very long before it invites unwanted guests, like flies and such, so be prepared to either keep it covered but still visible or make more than one and freeze it. Good Luck!

  11. Naomi, it is hard to see the plastids but I think I used rice krispies and the small vacuole is an upside-down chocolate chip. If you plan on eating it, remember I was going for scale, not for flavor.

  12. My 7th grader has a 3D plant cell model tomorrow, any suggestions on a fats and easy way to accomplish that?

  13. this helped me a lot. im in 8th grade and I am making a edible model so I used this idea to do it 🙂

  14. Good idea, i didnt use it though, we were not allowed to use candy, the teachers said it would be disgusting. 🙁

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