3D-tection: Trying to Fit In

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In this activity, learners explore how molecules must fit together, like a lock and key, in order to identify each other and initiate a new function as a combined unit. By fitting their hands into uniquely-shaped Play-dough models, learners simulate how receptors recognize each other and stick together based on their distinctive three-dimensional forms. This activity includes an optional extension, in which learners match objects to impressions of the objects in play-dough. Use this activity to introduce concepts related to nanotechnology, self-assembly, antigens, and antibodies. [Activity is publicly available through a web crawler capture on Archive.org.]

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
45 to 60 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
$1 - $5 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 8 - 11

Resource Types:
Activity, Lesson/Lesson Plan, Model


Materials List (per group of students)

  • Play Dough or Sculpey clay
  • Rolling pins
  • Small, opaque bags with small items that have unique and distinctive shapes


  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Nanotechnology
  • Life Sciences
    • Cells
      • Cell Structure and Function
    • Human Body
      • Immune System
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry

Informal Categories

  • Toys


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Components that are part of this resource:

Includes alignment to state and/or national standards:

Access Rights:

  • Free access



  • All rights reserved, Arizona Science Center, 2012

Funding Source:

  • Science Education Partnership Award, National Institutes of Health