NOVA Virtual Labs: RNA

Type Category
Assessment Materials Instructional Materials
Animation/Movie , Game , Informative Text , Interactive Simulation , Problem Set
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This rich digital resource explores the versatile RNA molecule through a highly engaging computer game and short explanatory videos.  The game is designed on three levels of increasing complexity, which are unlocked as students correctly perform the tasks below:

  • Explore the basic structure of RNA and correctly assemble a simple RNA molecule.

  • Discover how to use chemical bonds to make the molecule “fold” into shapes that can be used in living cells

  • Build a virus to attack a living cell, and then defend against that attack.

The videos introduce students to the physical function of RNA: how it works in cells to build proteins, store genetic information, and switch genes on and off. The third video poses the question of whether an RNA molecule was the original “building block” that caused life to form on Earth (known as the “RNA Origin of Life” theory.)  Teachers: Underlying concepts of chemical bonding and bond energy are effectively introduced without the complex vocabularies that are reserved for high school.  Allow 3 full class periods.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-PS1-1 Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on developing models of molecules that vary in complexity. Examples of simple molecules could include ammonia and methanol. Examples of extended structures could include sodium chloride or diamonds. Examples of molecular-level models could include drawings, 3D ball and stick structures, or computer representations showing different molecules with different types of atoms.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include valence electrons and bonding energy, discussing the ionic nature of subunits of complex structures, or a complete description of all individual atoms in a complex molecule or extended structure is not required.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The only prior knowledge required for students is a working definition of RNA:  RNA stands for ribonucleic acid -- a class of chain molecules that have important roles in living cells. RNA can carry the “message” of DNA, switch genes on and off, and transfer information to build the proteins essential for life. RNA can also exist as a virus that makes copies of itself inside living cells. (It can help to describe RNA as the “Swiss Army knife” of living cells.) The RNA molecular structure is much simpler than DNA -- RNA consists mostly of single-stranded chains, while DNA is a double helix structure. In the “RNA World” game, students will begin by exploring a very simple RNA molecular chain. As they correctly perform tasks, they unlock higher levels of the game where more complex RNA structures are introduced. It’s not necessary for students to understand the structure of DNA to comprehend this activity.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Teachers may want to provide content support in why RNA undergoes a “folding” process.  Since RNA is single-stranded, it can fold upon itself and form structures that are protein-like in their function. This means that RNA can do more than just store or carry information. It can also be a catalyst.  The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a nice short animation that describes the purpose of RNA folding:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
It probably wise to guide students to differentiate RNA in a living cell and RNA in a virus. The base units are the same in either, but the function of RNA is quite different between a living cell and a virus. In living cells RNA carries genetic information, can switch cell functions on or off, can translate amino acids to form proteins, and can form defenses to fight infection (RNA Interference). In a virus, the function of RNA is to “hijack” a cell’s molecular machinery to make copies of itself (i.e., to replicate). A virus is an intruder that injects its genetic code through a cell wall and causes the cell’s mechanism to make copy after copy, until the cell bursts -- sending countless copies out to hijack other cells.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
To specifically cover this DCI, teachers may want to create a simple vocabulary chart that shows the base units in RNA:  Adenine (A), Uracil (U), Guanine (G), and Cytosine (C).  Teachers: These four base units are each nitrogenous-base molecules made up of varying combinations of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and amine groupings. The four bases pair together to form chains called nucleotides. Students will not need to know the full molecular composition, just the abbreviations for the four RNA base units: A, U, G, and C.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This resource provides a highly engaging way to introduce students to the structural difference between DNA and RNA, focusing on conceptual understanding of the single-strand vs. double helix structure. RNA, due to its structure, is more versatile and capable of more diverse tasks than DNA.

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
To address this Crosscutting Concept, teachers will need to be sure students are clear on the difference between RNA and DNA. The action of RNA in our cells is crucial to many things we observe at the macro scale, for example, our inherited traits, how we grow properly, how our bodies process food, and how we recover from injury.  DNA doesn’t act directly on other molecules. The flow goes like this: DNA holds the blueprint of the cell with all genetic information needed for growth, reproduction, and food processing.  RNA is the “photocopy machine” that makes copies of DNA. These copies are then used to turn genetic code into proteins that regulate cellular processes. Without RNA, living cells couldn’t divide, process nutrients, grow, or recover from injury.  To draw in this CCC, ask students to list observable attributes of living things that couldn’t happen without RNA.  Examples:  Babies grow into adulthood (RNA makes the “photocopies” required for mitosis; breaking down food in intestines (RNA transfers the correct amino acid to the site of protein synthesis); certain diseases like common cold (RNA in a virus is responsible for spreading an encoded message that attacks a living host’s cells, causing illness).      

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: All 3 Dimensions of the NGSS are interwoven expertly in the RNA Virtual Lab game.  Unlike many models, this game puts the learner in the role of a genetic engineer who must use a digital model accurately to develop appropriate folding in the RNA to meet criteria. In the same vein, learners are integrating the Practice of using a model to describe unobservable mechanisms. We cannot “see” RNA; the model asks pertinent questions that prompt students to use the simulation to describe molecular-level phenomena. From the set-up of the model, students are explicitly meeting  DCI’s as they investigate how RNA moves within a cell, interacts with DNA strands to perform specific functions, and how RNA can be viewed as an extended molecule. The Crosscutting Concept related to Structure & Function is explicitly addressed in the animated videos that accompany the game.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are able to “see” the molecular structure of folded RNA, then gain deeper understanding by playing a game to build a series of folded RNA strands that perform a specific function. Each scenario is authentic and fun. Students have opportunities through NOVA to participate in an RNA Wiki and to compete in molecular design by submitting their work to a lab at Carnegie Mellon or Stanford. This resource builds nicely on the NGSS "storyline" related to cell structure and the basic meaning of “molecule”; however, it doesn’t explicitly explain how this is done in the Teachers Guide.The instructional videos are well-designed for the middle grades. The levels in the game itself are each based upon scientific computation, and will prove challenging to learners. (Note: The Level 3 activity may be difficult for some students in this grade band, but will be appropriate for Gifted/Talented learners or students with high interest.) While the RNA Game contains 3 distinct levels of increasing complexity, the Teachers Guide doesn’t provide explicit guidance on how to adapt the Game for students with disabilities.  Note: For color-blind students there is a gear button that adjusts the settings to allow them to participate fully.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Each of the four short videos contains an interactive online quiz (with answer key revealed upon completion). Registered teacher-users can store students’ quiz results, as well as their progress in the RNA Virtual Lab Game. The resource does not include vocabulary support (thus no assessment to gauge vocabulary acquisition). It would benefit from a culminating assessment that gauges student understanding of all concepts covered in the Game.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The RNA Game and accompanying videos were professionally produced by Eterna, a project created by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University.  At all times, students are interacting with varying levels of a game or watching short instructional videos that have an interactive quiz to gauge understanding.  A “Help” menu is available with tips if a student gets stuck. The one drawback is that many of the buttons require clicking in a precise “sweet spot” within the box; otherwise, the game won’t continue. This can become tedious, but the overall experience is quite positive.