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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Invent an app that helps your community

May 30, 2017

Full Lesson


How does the food you eat make it to your kitchen table? How has technology made that process easier?

Several young entrepreneurs in California’s rural Salinas Valley are inventing new apps to boost the economy and bring about new jobs. In this PBS NewsHour lesson, students will learn about the invention process and design an app that helps their community.


Science, Biology, Environmental Science, Computer Science, Economics, Business



Estimated time:

Two to three 50-minute periods

Essential question:

How might new inventions lead to a stronger economy?


  • Enough writing utensils (pens or markers) for each student
  • For the extension activity: Print and cut out the provided card templates on card stock paper or cut Bristol board into playing card sized rectangles — note cards will also work.


Warm up activity

  1. Where does our food come from?
      • Pair students up with a partner. Have them jot down notes to the following questions and share together as a class afterwards:
        • Where does the food we buy at the grocery store come from? (If the students don’t know, ask them to speak with a local supermarket, supplier or farmer for homework.) 
        • How is the food sold here grown? Where does the food come from?
        • How does the food get from the farm to the grocery store? How does it get to you?
        • What are the biggest challenge areas of cost/impact for farmers, wholesalers, supermarkets?
        • How has/how can technology help improve the economy?
  2. Map activity
      • Draw a map on the whiteboard with lines that visually represent where food products come from and how they travel from the farm (point A on map) to grocery stores around the country (point B on the map).
      • Then, let your students know that the ways in which food is grown and how it gets to the local supermarket involve thousands of inventions, i.e. from the plows and sprinkler systems that help produce the food to the MAC trucks that bring it to your town.
        • Ask your students to brainstorm inventions involved in food moving from farm to table. Fill the inventions in on the whiteboard map where the invention best belongs as students state their responses.

Main activity

The Invention Process

Watch the PBS NewsHour video “California’s ‘Salad Bowl’ is cultivating more than crops.” Ask your students: How might new apps strengthen the economy in the Salinas Valley? What role does Salinas Community College play in the lives of first-generation students?

  1. Student inventors activity:  This activity is designed to go beyond agriculture into other areas of need within students’ local communities. It allows students to become entrepreneurs and inventors similar to the young people in the video. Students will research a problem in their community and invent an app that helps to address it.
  2. Have students brainstorm a problem in their community. Focus on problems that they are passionate about and have them choose an issue to improve. To find out more about the problem, have students conduct research, including reading their local newspaper. Students should take notes and include their sources. They may use the following guiding questions:
      • How can you find out more about the problem?
      • Who might you interview?
      • How can you use technology to help find out more about the issue?
  3. Using their research, students will invent a new app designed to help others learn about their issue. In order to do this, let students know that they will follow key steps of the invention process as explained by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). 
  4. There are four components of this project: A one-page business plan; a sketch, model or prototype of their invention that they will present to key stakeholders, such as town council members, state lawmakers, the local newspaper and advocacy groups (really their classmates and teacher); a flowchart explaining how the app works; and an App Store web page.
      • Write out a one-page business plan for the app which includes the following questions:
        • What is the problem?
        • Who does the problem affect?
        • How will my invention solve the problem?
        • What would it take to make this invention a reality?
        • Who would I approach for help in making my invention a reality or improving upon on my design?
        • At the end of this students should be confident in sharing their business plan to interested parties.
      • Sketch, model or build a prototype of their invention (if time allows, and you have access to supplies, have your students build a model or prototype of their app; however, sketches are more than suitable for this activity).
      • A flowchart of how their app works. Use arrows and draw however many description boxes your app requires. 
      • An App Store page of what their app will look like including a few screenshots, the app’s name, description of the app and a couple of customer reviews. Use this app from the App Store as model. 
  5. Groups should present their project to the class and take questions about their invention based on the list of elements above. Students should provide feedback as to whether or not the invention is something that stakeholders would consider supporting.
  6. We would love to hear how you used this project in your class. Tag #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra and share images of your students’ inventions. We’d also love to see pictures of you using this lesson. 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 activity

  1. Mystery card game: AgrInnovation” – Day 1 
    • Let your students know that they will be creating their own mystery card game calledAgrInnovationsimilar to the popular Headbanz game. This game will help students explore key factors affecting agriculture, the economy and the food they eat. 
  2. Explore key factors that have impacted agriculture over the course of human history. Write out the letters B-E-T-S in columns on the whiteboard and define the letters in parentheses with the terms below.
    • Biological – the impact of biology and biological initiatives such as pests, bacteria resistant crops, chemicals
    • Environmental – the impact of climate, geography and geology
    • Technological – the impact of technological developments
    • Social – the impact of sociological factors such as human growth, cultural, political and other factors that impact agriculture
    • As a class, brainstorm key factors that impact agriculture (i.e. soil quality) for about 5 minutes. Decide which of the four impact areas (B-E-T-S) these factors best fit under. Soil quality may fit under more than one category. Have students pick just one.
  3. Break students into groups of 4-5 students — these will be their AgrInnovation game groups. Students should spend the rest of the class researching additional factors (they may choose factors from the Research Key Words Sheet or come up with their own) that impact agriculture.
  4. Each student should come up with 4 separate cards using the template located under the materials section. Here is an example: 
  5. Each student should let the teacher know their ‘Impact Titles’ before they leave class, so there are no repeats among members of the same group.
  6. Then, students should fill out the card for homework – see example above. Students must come up with point values (+1, +2 or +3) for each card based on the perceived level of difficulty.
  7. Day 2 – Game time and debrief
    • With a deck of AgrInnovation cards, the students will sit in their groups and will draw a card each (without looking at it).
    • That student will put the card to their forehead facing the rest of the group and asking deductive questions to determine the key factor (i.e. soil quality) they have. Students should pick another card in case they pick their own.
    • Add up the points at the end of the game and whoever has the most wins!
    • At the end of the recommended time, students should come back together as a class to debrief the lesson.
      • Ask students what they thought of the impact areas. Were they too broad, too narrow or overlapped each other?
      • Ask students to share their most impactful card with the class and explain the reasons for their decision.
      • Offer suggestions as to how the game could be improved.

Garrett Zimmer is a GBL curriculum designer and leading innovator in education in the area of Game Based Learning. AgrInnovation was developed by Zimmer who is the CEO and president of MineGage. MineGage specializes in taking lessons to the next level of engagement to ensure that learning is fun and becomes a lifelong passion for students. You can reach Garrett via Twitter or connect with him at