Modeling Nucleic Acids with Pipe Cleaners, Beads, and Paper Clips

A while ago, I brainstormed and came up with some bead and pipe cleaner activities to help my students model proteins, carbohydrates, and lipid molecules.  For a year or two, I’ve been trying to figure out how to best show students what monomers are, what polymers are, and why they are important.  After all, they are what make up our cells and bodies and all living beings that we know of!  I wrote up some activity sheets to go with my activity.  I asked my students to build the monomers and polymers out of beads and pipe cleaners and learn about their structure and function along the way.  I used beads and pipe cleaners because I just didn’t have the resources to buy any formal science modeling kits.

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But nucleic acids…?  Those are harder because their polymers (DNA single strands) have to be able to “stick” to other polymers of the same type.  I also needed to find some material that I could color code with, something with 4 different colors but the same general size/shape. (I know nucleotides aren’t all the same size (pyridines vs purines) but I wanted to get as close to the idea as I could.)


After a lot more brainstorming, I came up with a way to make a hands-on activity for nucleic acids!  I was wandering through Staples (I’m kind of a school supply hoarder/junkie – there is just something calming about buying school supplies, I’m not sure why) and I discovered the answer.  I walked through the colorful binder clips and paper clips section and I saw these.

I decided to use these paper clips as nucleotides!  You can actually order them from Amazon here (affiliate link) if you want to save a trip to the store.  I used 5 of the colors for the 5 different bases.


I used red beads to symbolize ribose and I had my students create RNA single strands (the white paper clip is uracil!)


I used blue beads to represent deoxyribose.  The green and red symbolize guanine and cytosine and the blue and yellow paper clips symbolize adenine and thymine.


I also wrote an activity packet that I can use with my nucleotide paper clip activity.  With my pages, your students can create DNA and RNA with guidance.  The activity packet includes a coloring page that will help your students examine the structure and they will definitely remember the differences between RNA and DNA!

You can get my nucleic acid activity here!

Or you can get the bundle with all 4 of my biochemistry activities here at a discount!  Each activity has instructions, questions, and an answer key!

Looking for another hands-on demonstration for your biology class?  Pull out your kids’ old Duplo blocks and check out my DNA Replication with LEGO(R) Bricks Blog post.

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