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Why are Cells Small? Surface Area to Volume Ratio

By John Howard Starnes1, Christianne Baucom Nieuwsma2, Jennifer Glee Buntz3, Sondra Marie LoRe4, Vedham Karpakakunjaram5

1. Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College 2. South Mountain Community College 3. Central New Mexico Community College 4. National Institute for STEM Evaluation & Research (NISER) 5. Montgomery College

This module explores surface area to volume ratios in a cube and sphere in relation to cell size.

Listed in Teaching Materials | resource by group QB@CC Monday Pilot Incubator

Version 1.0 - published on 30 Apr 2020 doi:10.25334/4B1G-D309 - cite this

Licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International according to these terms



Why are Cells Small? was developed as part of an effort by the Quantitative Biology at Community Colleges group to provide materials that incorporate mathematical concepts into biology courses. The activity was designed for a non-majors biology course, and maps to Chapter 4 of the OpenStax Biology 2e textbook.  This activity could also be used in a mathematics course as a biologically relevant example.

After completing this module students should be able to:

  • Explain the relationship of surface area to volume
  • Describe the importance of a large surface area to volume ratio in the context of a living cell
  • Calculate surface area of cubes and spheres
  • Calculate volume of cubes and spheres
  •  Express two values as a ratio
  • Enter data into a table
  • Interpret Tables
  • Create a graph
  • Describe the axis labels on graphs
  • Interpret graphs

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1919613. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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