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August 2, 2017

Lesson plan: How new inventions are revolutionizing how we help people with injuries and disabilities

New groundbreaking technology may help improve the lives of people who are paralyzed or experienced severe limb weakness due to illness or injuries in major accidents. For decades, scientists have been researching and inventing medical devices and procedures that focus on the important connections between the human brain and computers.

In this PBS NewsHour lesson, students will learn about the invention process, including a new bio-tech device that’s helping patients with physical injuries and disabilities. Students will then research a medical invention or procedure they are familiar with (i.e. Band-Aids) and create innovative ways to improve upon it.  




Science, Biology, Social Studies, Technology, Engineering

Essential Question

How could new inventions change the way physical injuries and disabilities are treated?


Students will understand the difference between inventions and innovations. They will also learn how to improve upon the design of a common medical product or procedure using the design process, which may also be referred to as the invention process.


Medical procedures or devices are used to prevent, relieve, treat or cure the symptoms of human suffering caused by a disease or an accident. Such medical inventions have existed for thousands of years and are undergoing constant improvement or innovation using design principles. In this lesson, students will research how medicine has changed over the course of history through improvements in design.


  • dowels or Popsicle sticks
  • chenille strips
  • glue or glue guns
  • aluminum foil
  • Sharpies
  • masking or duct tape
  • paper clips
  • cardboard
  • scissors
  • string
  • brass fasteners


Warm up activities:

  1. As a class, brainstorm medical devices on the whiteboard and briefly describe how they have helped improve medical treatments. Make it clear to your students that a medical device or product is something someone invented, i.e. it’s an invention! This is important because it’s a clearer way of letting students know that a person or a team of people were behind a new idea, and that they too, could be an inventor who creates products to help others.
  2. Watch this PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs video about a man with congenital limb deficiency. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/designer-born-without-hands-chooses-life-inspiration/ Ask students to work in partners to answer the following questions based on the video:
    • What is the medical device or invention featured in this video? How is this useful? What would have been Ryan Hudson-Peralta’s options 50 years ago?
    • How have medical inventions and procedures changed from ancient civilizations to modern day? (e.g. antibiotics, leeches treatment, soap)

3. What is the difference between an invention and an innovation? Is there a difference? It’s a little tricky. Explain that an invention is the first time someone has come up with the idea, and an innovation is an improvement upon an existing invention. But an innovation could also be considered an invention in its own right.
♦♦♦For example, the invention of the computer mouse has taken on many forms. Think of each innovation to the mouse as its own important invention on top of the original invention. Take a look at the image below. What is the invention? What is the innovation? Think of one invention and one innovation on that invention to share with the class.

Main activity – Your turn to innovate a medical invention

Part One: Video and reflective discussion

  1. Watch the PBS NewsHour video, Typing sentences by simply thinking is possible with new technology.” What is the medical invention featured in the video?
    • What branches of science are working together in order to alleviate the paralyzed individual’s inability to communicate using computers? How do they work together? What pieces of the “puzzle” are each branch responsible for?
    • What are at least 2 ethical considerations when enrolling paralyzed patients such as those with ALS into research experiments using untested neural prosthesis?? How do scientists and doctors deal with those ethical considerations?
    • How do you think this technology might be applied in the future?

 Part Two: Choose your own invention

  1. Model the activity first: As a class, choose one medical invention or device that has helped people in some way. What innovations have been made to the device?
  2. Use that invention (i.e. Band-Aid or antibiotics) to carry out the steps of the design process: brainstorm, design, test and redesign. Ask why redesign is an important step of the design.
  3. What steps are part of the invention process? How is the invention process different to the design process? How is it similar?
  4. Next, put students into small groups, preferably in pairs. Have each pair decide on a medical invention that they would like to research based on the warm up activity above.
  5. Have students research their invention and track its evolution over time. Students should research and answer the questions below about their invention by creating a PowerPoint slide or poster. Be sure to include the following information:
    • Who invented it? In what year?
    • What is it used for? Include key features including how it helps to diagnose, treat or manage disease.
    • What innovations (or improvements) have been made over time in its design or function?
    • Pros and cons of the invention.
    • List of sources.
  6. As reliable suggestions, share the following websites with your students:

Part Three – Create a Sketch, Model or Prototype

  1. Let students know they are now going to innovate their medical invention. With their same partner, have students choose one aspect of their device that they would like to improve.
    • Note: Depending on time and your classroom supply budget, decide whether you are going to ask your students to sketch, create a model or build a prototype of their newly innovated invention. In some cases, you may give students a choice in whether they sketch, model or build a prototype of their invention.
  2. Sketch, model or build a prototype of your new invention using the craft supplies listed above.
  3. Requirements: Be sure that groups include the following information on poster board (draw explanatory boxes or bubbles surrounding their sketch) or in a written one-page document, if they have built a model or prototype:
    • What is the problem you have decided to address? How does it help people?
    • How is your innovation better than the existing product?
    • List at least THREE problems you came across when innovating your invention, and how you solved them.
    • What are some additional comparisons you can make between your invention and what is already on the market?
    • How does this activity demonstrate how the invention process works? Could you skip a step and still come up with a usable product?
    • Address the impacts on the human body and the environment based on your new design. This step is critical.
      • How does your invention interact with or affect the environment? How about with a person’s physical well-being? If a product may be helpful but may harm other parts of the body or the ecosystem, you may have to think about whether or not the product is actually innovative.
    • Next, address the economic implications of your invention.
      • Think of the automobile or the computer and the millions of jobs that continue to be created through these two inventions. Then think about how many new jobs came about once the airbag and mouse were invented and innovations made afterwards? How could the innovations made to your invention help create more jobs? Do you have a rough estimate of how many new jobs may be created? Is there a chance that your new design will eliminate people’s jobs? Explain.
  4. Have students present their invention to the class in a 5-minute presentation.
    • Presenters should answer any questions their classmates or teacher might have.
    • Students should decide as a class whether or not the invention is something that scientists, lawmakers and other thought leaders would consider supporting and explain their reasoning.
  5. We would love to hear how you used this project in your class! Tag #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra with any images of your students’ presentations or any steps of you teaching the lesson. We will retweet and put up on our Facebook account…plus, we will send you a PBS NewsHour Extra stress ball and thumb drive!

Extension Activities

  1. Medical timeline activity: 
    • Go to PBS WGBH’s website and complete the  “Doctor Over Time,” activity which lets students play the game to see how doctors over the years have handled the same illnesses http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/doctor/
    • Next, think of a disease that dates back to 1900. Visit each year (1900, 1950, 1998) and complete the chart below. Jot down one or two notes for each section.
    • Ask students to explain how the treatments for the same diseases have changed over time. Why were these changes made? Describe the role medical inventions and innovations played in the diagnosis of disease.
YEAR: 1900 1950 1998








2. Invite students to create a proposal to submit their invention to an open innovation medical marketplace partner such as Edison Nation (https://edisonnationmedical.com/) or Lemelson-MIT (http://lemelson.mit.edu/). Include the following information under the words:


  1. Title
  2. Company Name
  3. Describe your invention idea in five words or less
  4. Category
  5. Detailed description
  6. Tell us about your invention. What are the features and benefits? What problem does it solve? (500 words or less)
  7. What is innovative about your invention?
  8. What is “new” about your invention? (100 words or less)
  9.  Competitors
  10. Do your research. Identify three potential competing products or technologies that address similar issues. Explain why yours is superior.
  11. Have you completed any of the following stages? Check all that apply:
    • Industrial Design
    • Engineering
    • Prototyping
    • Branding
    • Packaging
    • Manufacturing
  12. Do you have in your possession?
    • Technical drawing
    • Prototype
    • Factory sample
    • Demonstration video


Next Generation Science Standards

Content Standard: NS.5-8.5 SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY In grades 5-8, all students should develop: • Comprehension related to abilities of technological design • Understanding about science and technology

Content Standard: HS-ETS1-2 Engineering Design: • Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

Danielle Thompson has been teaching courses related to biomedicine and biotechnology for more than 15 years in three different states and in Europe. She is passionate about problem and project-based learning and STEM education. You can connect with her on Twitter @MsDDThomps.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Next Generation Science Standards

      Content Standard: NS.5-8.5 SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY In grades 5-8, all students should develop: • Comprehension related to abilities of technological design • Understanding about science and technology

      Content Standard: HS-ETS1-2 Engineering Design: • Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

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