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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Invent your own device to battle invasive species

February 1, 2017

Full Lesson


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 their own invention to help deal with the problem. 


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 –until recently — had been at a loss as to how to prevent the invasion from spreading further. 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.

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: Ask each student to write down without discussion what they think the term invasive species means. Then ask them to jot down what steps they think went into making the lionfish zapper. How did it go from an idea in someone’s head to hitting the open seas? Have students share their responses with a partner.

Ask students what they think makes up the invention process and write down their responses on the whiteboard. Be sure to include the following: identify a problem, brainstorm solutions, decide on a solution, conduct research, develop a plan, build a model and test it, share the invention, patent it, critique the invention and review the invention process.

Main activity 1: What makes a species invasive?

  1. Let your students know 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 story ‘How do you stop invasive lionfish? Maybe with a robotic zapper.’

3. After the video, 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.” 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.

4. To begin shaping the students’ interpretation of what they saw in the video put up three categories on the board: The ProblemSolutions, and The Future. Have students work in partners to brainstorm each of the three categories in their notebooks. Invite volunteers to record their responses on the whiteboard and ask students how they could find out the latest updates on Florida’s lionfish dilemma.

5. Next, have students work in their groups to come up with a single list in two columns: Lionfish Traits (i.e. gills) and How Zapper Addresses Trait Upon Transfer (i.e. respiratory mechanism). Ask students to research another invasive species and an invention that was used to help transfer them. List the traits of the organism and how the invention addresses each trait. Was the invention successful in taking care of the problem?

6. Ethics alert: Do you think invasive species should be protected/transferred or eradicated? Explain.

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

  1. Have students find an invasive species in their community or region that does not yet have an adequate solution. Let them know that for this activity they will write a 1-page pitch (think Shark Tank!) of an invention along with a sketch, model or prototype that could help slow down the invasive species or eradicate it altogether. For eradication, an ethical discussion may be warranted.
  2. Research online or use books in the library (i.e. rabbits on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned). Take about a page of notes that includes 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 organisms.
  3. Decide beforehand or give students the option to sketch, model or build a prototype of their invention.
  4. To accompany their sketch, model or prototype of their invention, students will write a 1-page pitch that they will present to key stakeholders (their classmates), local and state lawmakers, environmental groups, etc.
    • Let students come up with what they think needs to go into their pitches first, but make sure they’ve covered the basics: clear purpose/what problem is invention solving, cost, number of jobs, materials and unintended negative consequences. For example, in trying to fight off the invasive species, the invention should not cause an environmental disaster for the area. Think about how such problems could be avoided while designing your invention.
  5. Have students present their work to the class, including the one-page pitch and the sketch, model or prototype of their invention. Ask each presenter to take questions from the class based on the list of requirements for their pitches and decide whether or not the invention is something that scientists, lawmakers and other thought leaders would consider supporting.

Extension Activities

Activity 1:  How can you determine if there are invasive species where you live?

  1. Have students identify local species they think are indigenous to the area. Bring students outside in the area of the school to teach them how to log their encounters. Create a data collection log with columns for dates, locations and observations of surroundings.
  2. For a specified time period (week, month, year) have students record their sightings. Smartphones can be used to make video and picture observations or students may wish to draw their own visual observations.
  3. Have the students apply all the criteria they developed in the original lesson with the lionfish to their organisms; report back on whether or not it is possible to tell whether or not the organism is invasive or indigenous to the area and any other interesting observations.

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?

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.