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February 1, 2017

Lesson Plan: Zapping robot invention battles invasive species

Stunning fish who were once kept as pets are destroying Florida’s coral reef ecosystem. In this PBS NewsHour lesson plan, students will learn how scientists are using a new invention, a lionfish zapping robot, to combat this harmful invasive species. Students will learn about the invention process, including researching an invasive species and designing an invention that will help counteract the organism’s negative effects.


Biology, AP Biology, AP Environmental Science, Marine Biology, Earth Science

Estimated Time

Two to three 50-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 have been at a loss as to how to prevent the invasion from spreading further, that is, until recently. The lionfish robot invention hit the open seas in June 2017Check out the video below where the robot can be seen zapping and vacuuming up about 10 lionfish before resurfacing.


The purpose of this lesson is to develop the concept of an invasive species beyond a simple definition and explore how new inventions are helping to save Florida’s ecosystem. 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.” Students will then design an experiment that mimics how scientists could better understand if a species is invasive and harmful. Students will then have the opportunity to explore invasive species close to their communities or surrounding region and create an invention to help solve the problem.

Essential Question

How have new inventions helped to improve damaged ecosystems?


  • Projector and access to Internet
  • 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
  • Colored pencils and a blank world map (optional)


Warm up activity:

Brainstorm: Get students thinking by asking them to write down, without discussion, what they think the term invasive species means. Have students share their responses with a partner and then together as a class.

Next, ask students to write down their responses individually to the following question: how could scientists combat the problem of invasive species? Include any possible invention ideas. Have the students share their responses in pairs and then together as a class, writing down their ideas on the whiteboard.

Main activity 1: What makes a species invasive?

  1. 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 video ‘A robot to zap ‘Darwin’s nightmare,’ from the NewsHour online story, ‘How do you stop invasive lionfish? Maybe with a robotic zapper.’

3. Once the video is over, have the students share with each other in their groups what they thought was interesting and/or important. Do they think the zapping robot invention will work? Why or why not?

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. 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.

5. 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.”

6. 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.

7. As a summary, have the students individually write out the criteria they attribute to a species being considered invasive.

Main activity 2: Design your own invention to combat an invasive species

  1. 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?
  2. Have students find an invasive species (online or anywhere else they might look) and apply the list they created at the end of the previous class to the new organism they found. Next, ask students to research and write about a page which lists a brief history of the invasive species they are covering and what attempts, if any, have already been made to ward off or remove the invasive species.
  3. Decide beforehand or give students the option to sketch, model or build a prototype of an invention that could help slow down the invasive species or eradicate it from the community or region all together.
    • Generate a list on the whiteboard with your class that stipulates the requirements for the invention. These should be elements that will help make the invention a success, i.e. cost, jobs, energy sources, parts required, provides a social good, etc. as well as a list of unintended negative side effects that students should do their best to avoid. For example, in trying to fight off the invasive species, the invention should not cause an environmental disaster for the area. In designing the invention, how might such problems be avoided?
  4. Have students present their work to the class, including the one-pager they did (see step #2) and the sketch, model or prototype they made of their invention. Ask each presenter to take questions from the class based on the list of requirements generated in step #3 and decide whether or not the invention is something that scientists, lawmakers and other thought leaders would consider supporting.
    • We would love to hear how you used this project in your class! Tag #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra and send any images of you and your students and their inventions. We’d also love pictures of you using this lesson in your class. We will retweet and put up on our Facebook account…plus, we will send you a PBS NewsHour Extra stress ball and a PBS thumb drive!

Extension Activities

Activity 1:  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Activity 2:  Watch the PBS NewsHour video “How Florida is handling invasive lionfish” below. What are the benefits of bringing various members of the community together including scuba divers, commercial fishers and scientists in order to solve the lionfish problem? What are the main concerns discussed by the scientists in the story? 


Activity 3:  Have your students read the PBS NewsHour story “Lionfish Invasion” and ask your what facts struck them the most. Perhaps how a house pet soon became a predatory threat? Ask students if their local pet store carries lionfish. I would bet they do. 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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