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February 1, 2017

Lesson Plan: Killer robots battle invasive species

Stunning fish who were once kept as pets are destroying Florida’s coral reef ecosystem. In this lesson plan, students will learn how scientists are using new technologies and robotics to combat harmful invasive species. Students will also design an experiment that will mimic how scientists better understand if a species is invasive.


Biology, AP Biology, AP Environmental Science, marine biology, earth science

Estimated Time

One to two 45-minute periods




Indo-Pacific lionfish believed to have been imported as aquarium pets in the 80s and 90s, are attacking the region’s coral reefs. The result is an invasive species that has extended its range to Brazil and is eating its way through local fish populations, changing the reef ecology. While some interesting management practices such as putting them on restaurant menus have helped a little, scientists are at a loss as to how to prevent the invasion from spreading further.

The purpose of this lesson is to develop the concept of an invasive species beyond a simple definition and explore the science behind the concept. Students will work in groups to shape their understanding of invasive species by piecing together information identified within the short video “How Florida is handling invasive lionfish.” By looking closely at how lionfish characteristics are particularly well suited to the Florida reef ecosystem, students will be able to apply the complexities of an invasive species beyond the basic definition of the term.

Students will also design an experiment that mimics how scientists better understand if a species is invasive and harmful.

Essential Question

Why are organisms considered invasive in one area and not in another?


– VIDEO: “How Florida is Handling Invasive Lionfish”


– enough chalk or white board markers or otherwise for about 4 students to write on the board at the same time

– student notebooks and writing implements

– students organized into small groups of no more than 4 per group

– colored pencils and a blank world map (optional)


Period 1 Aim: Why are lionfish considered invasive in Florida?

Initial Engagement

  1. Get students thinking by asking them to write down, without discussion, what they think the term invasive species means. Next inform them that they are about to embark on a little diving expedition. In order for them to understand what they will be seeing, you have found a short video that acts as a precursor to what they will be doing as they are diving. They are to write down any major themes they notice and questions they have regarding what they are seeing.
  2. Show the PBS NewsHour 8-minute ‘How Florida is handling invasive lionfish’ video with no further introduction.
  3. Once the video is over, have the students share with each other in their groups what they thought was interesting and/or important.
  4. To begin shaping the students interpretation of what they saw put up three categories on the board: The Problem, Solutions, and The Future.
    • Have the students do the same in their notebooks.
    • Invite volunteers to come to the board randomly to write down anything they thought was important to know under the appropriate heading. If students are uncomfortable coming up in front of the class, they can share their ideas from their seats though actual movement can be very motivating for the whole class. At this point you might also want to show the video again depending on time and how much the students contributed after the first viewing.
    • Whether just from what is on the board, or from watching the video again, have the students add to their own lists under each category. Especially focus on the idea that the lionfish is naturally found in South East Asia and India and is now found all over the Southwestern U.S., the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
    • At this point you can also hand out the blank map and colored pencils and have the students identify the regions where lionfish come from and where they are now “invading.”
  5. Have the students work in their groups to come up with a single list in two columns Lionfish Characteristics and Effects on Reef Ecosystem. Next, have them assess as a group which of the characteristics from their group list might be applicable to any organism successfully transferred from one location to a new location.
  6. As a summary, have the students individually write out the criteria they attribute to a species being considered invasive.

Supportive homework idea: Have students find an invasive species (online or anywhere else they might look) and apply the list they created at the end of class to the new organism they found. They can also find out if their local pet store carries lionfish. I would bet they do.

Period 2 – Aim: How would scientists approach understanding the effects of lionfish on Florida reefs?

  1. Have student groups review their list of why lionfish are considered harmful to the Florida reef ecosystem.
  2. Discuss with the students the major components of designing an effective experiment.
  3. Based on what they saw and heard in the video, have them design a basic experiment to determine if the presence of lionfish is somehow harming the Florida reef. Have the students pay particular attention to the materials they would need and the methods they would employ to collect their data.

Application activity – extension of the invasive species concept through field observation.

Go further using this application activity – Aim: How can we determine if there are invasive species where we live?

  1. Find or create a large map of the area where the majority of your students live. Have the large map posted where students can see it every day and then have pins or stickers that can be placed on the map by location for every sighting.
  1. Have the class come up with several organisms they see frequently and decide on one or two they would like to follow to see if those organisms are invasive within the map area. Share with students a picture of the organisms to make sure everyone is looking for the same organisms.
  1. Create a data collection log with columns for date, location and observations of surroundings. Bring students outside in the area of the school to teach them how to log their encounters.
  1. For a specified time period (week, month, year) have the students record their sightings. Smartphones can be used to make video and picture observations while students without smart phones can make written or drawn visual observations.
  1. Have the students do research to identify local species indigenous to the area making sure they also identify the species they are tracking and where they are indigenous to.
  1. Have the students apply all the criteria they developed in the original lesson with the lionfish to their organisms, and then report back on whether or not the organism is invasive and how they know.

NOTE: There is a great deal of information on the internet about the invasive species in many areas and countries as well as maps where the organisms are invasive. Students can eventually compare their findings to the previously collected data.

Extension Activities

  • Watch the PBS NewsHour video below, “How scientists aim to combat the invasive lionfish,” and ask students if they can think of any other invasive species that have wreaked havoc on an ecosystem. What technologies did humans use to intervene against such species? Were they successful? Why or why not?

  • Have your students read the PBS NewsHour story “Lionfish Invasion” and ask your students what fact struck them the most. Perhaps how a house pet soon became a predatory threat? The fact that lionfish release 30,000 eggs every few days? How is the lionfish invasion a global problem? How could countries work together to try to come up with solutions?

Ed Wren teaches AP Environmental Science, Marine Biology and Animal Behavior at Bronx High School of Science in New York City.  He has been teaching for 15 years and is currently a master teacher fellow for Math for America.

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    Relevant National Standards:
    • Next Generation Science Standards:
    • HS-LS2-6 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.

      HS-LS2-7 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.

      HS-LS4-3 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity Apply concepts of statistics and probability to support explanations that organisms with an advantageous heritable trait tend to increase in proportion to organisms lacking this trait.

      HS-LS4-5 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in: (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species.

      HS-ESS3-4 Earth and Human Activity Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

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