Sequence 1: Stem cell understanding

Types and functions of stem cells

The second module within Sequence 1 focuses on developing an understanding of the different types and function of stem cells.

VCE key knowledge (VCAA 2015)

Cell growth and differentiation (Unit 2, Area of Study 1, Outcome 1, VCE Biology Study Design)

  • the types and function of stem cells in human development, including the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cells and their potential use in the development of medical therapies


1 - 2 hours

Student learning outcomes

On completion of this module, students will:

  • be able to describe the basic role of stem cells in the human body: including self-renewal and differentiation.
  • know that stem cells are ‘unspecialised’ and give rise to every different cell in the body.
  • be able to describe and distinguish between the role of pluripotent stem cells (including embryonic (and induced pluripotent stem cells) and tissue stem cells (or adult stem cells).

Teacher background information

The core resources for this sequence are from the: National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia, Teacher’s Kit

Download Stem Cell Teacher’s Kit

Note: Since the Teacher’s Kit was written a number of the links to which it refers have become inactive. It nevertheless remains an excellent resource.

The relevant background reading and activities from this Teacher’s Kit are referenced in the white boxes below. Further background material and alternative activities are highlighted in yellow.

Teacher's Kit (pp.24-25)

Chapter 2 - The different types of stem cells

Background information on the different types of stem cells and their function.


University of Utah: Stem cell quick reference

Presented in poster format this reference guide examines somatic or adult stem cells, embryonic stem (ES) cells and induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells. It introduces the different stem cells, identifying their potential as therapy, special and ethical considerations. There is a small section on therapeutic cloning.

Website (Videos)

EuroStemCell website: Videos and films

Access to a range of informative and scientific videos and films have been made available by the EuroStemCell organisation.

Highlighted are the following videos:


Stem cell revolution

Vision of the Future - a documentary by Amy Hardie and Clare Blackburn.

Explore the realities behind the hopes and fears associated with stem cell research.

Website (Interactive)

University of Utah: The nature of stem cells

A series of narrated slides that provide a simple description of changing cell potency and cellular differentiation from fertilization through the development of the embryo and foetus.


Wellcome Trust: Stem cells

The Wellcome Trust site is an authoritative UK website that provides teachers with detailed information about stem cells including:

  • Properties of stem cells
  • Types of stem cell
  • The ethics of stem cells
  • Medical uses of stem cells
  • Medical potential of stem cells

What are embryonic stem cells? Narrated by Dr Janet Rossant

In this Stem Cell Network video, use is made of animation to explain the basics of embryonic stem cells. Limited detail is provided but the video is suitable for sharing with students who can then uncover additional information from other sources.


What are induced pluripotent stem cells? Narrated by Dr Mick Bhatia

In this Stem Cell Network video, the focus is on introducing induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells using the animated format. Limited detail is provided but the video is suitable for sharing with students who can then uncover additional information from other sources.



Teacher's Kit (pp.26-40)

Activity 2.1.3 - The two main categories of stem cells: Research task

This research task positions students to consider the role and function of the different stem cell types and to compare the benefits and limitations of each. Students are required to view a Stem Cell Channel Video and complete a table-based graphic organiser handout.

Teacher's Kit (pp.41-43)

Activity 2.2.1 - Visualising thinking on stem cells: Mind map

This activity involves summarising and creating a visual representation of thinking from activity 2.1.3 through the creation of a mind map.

Teacher's Kit (p.47)

Activity 2.3 - Consolidating knowledge about stem cells

This activity adopts a drama-based pedagogy and requires students to create a role-play representation of the different stem cell types. Alternatively or additionally, students could develop a poster in order to consolidate knowledge learnt.

Teacher's Kit (pp.48-50)

Activity 2.4 - Potent lingo

This activity focuses on exploring and decoding the scientific language pertaining to stem cell science. Students are required to work through the associated handout.

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Thanks to the following for contributing to the development of these sequences:

  • Dr. Elise Roper MTeach student at Deakin University (Pre-Service Teacher Contributor and Collator)
  • Dr. Julie Cooper MTeach student at Deakin University (Pre-Service Teacher Contributor and Collator)
  • Prof. Megan Munsie Policy and Outreach Manager and Head of Education, Ethics, Law & Community Awareness Unit, The University of Melbourne (Stem Cell Scientist)
  • Dr. Peta WhiteDr. Peta White Lecturer in Science and Environmental Education at Deakin University (Education Academic and Project Coordinator)

Special thanks to Olivia Tan MTeach student at Deakin University (Pre-Service Teacher Contributor)