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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: How new inventions help people with disabilities and injuries

August 2, 2017

Full Lesson


For decades, technology has helped to improve the lives of people with disabilities and injuries. In this PBS NewsHour lesson, students will learn about the invention process, including a new bio-medical device which allows individuals who cannot physically speak to type sentences by simply thinking.

Students will then research a medical invention or procedure and create innovative ways to improve upon it.  



Estimated time

Two 50-minute periods


Science, Biology, Ethics, Engineering, Social Studies, English Language Arts (ELA)

Essential Question

How could new inventions change the lives of people with injuries and disabilities?


To improve upon the design of a common medical product or procedure using the design or invention process.

To understand the steps of the invention process and how innovation can be used for social change.


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. 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 products on the whiteboard and briefly describe how they have helped improved people’s lives. 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 lets students know that a person or a team of people were behind a new idea. 
    • Go further: Explain to your students that identifying a problem is the first step of the invention process, which students (and all inventors for that matter) will use to complete this project. Ask students what steps make up the invention process. Write these steps on the whiteboard and be sure students record them in their notes.
  2. Watch this PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs video about Ryan Hudson-Peralta, a man with congenital limb deficiency Ask students to work in partners to answer the following questions based on the video:
    • What inventions are featured in this video? How might they be useful to Hudson-Peralta? What were the options available to Hudson-Peralta 50 years ago with regards to work, having a family and recreational activities? If you are not sure, how could you find out?
    • 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?People tend to think of an invention as the first time someone has come up with an idea and innovation as an improvement upon an existing invention. It becomes a little tricky because an innovation could also be considered an invention in its own right.

Take a look at the image below. The invention of the computer mouse has taken on many forms. Think of all the innovations that have been made to the mouse. What various innovations have been made to the mouse? What problem was each innovation trying to solve?

Main activity – Your turn to innovate

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 other inventions is the new technology using?
    • What branches of science are working together in order to help Dennis DeGray communicate using a computer? What pieces of the “puzzle” are each branch responsible for?
    • What are some 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. Let your students know that they will have the chance to innovate a medical device of their choosing which they will present to the class. Model the activity first: As a class, choose one medical invention/device that has helped people in some way. What innovations have been made to the device?
  2. Use the invention (i.e. Band-Aid or antibiotics) to explore steps of the invention process: identify a problem, brainstorm solutions, design, test and redesign. Ask why redesign is an important step of the invention process.
  3. 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.
  4. Have students research their invention and track its evolution over time. Students should research and answer the questions below by creating a PowerPoint slide or poster. Be sure to include the following information:
    • Who invented the medical device? In what year?
    • What is the device used for? Include key features including how it helps to diagnose, treat or manage disease.
    • What innovations have been made over time in its design or function?
    • Write out pros and cons of the invention.
    • Include a list of sources.

Part Three – Sketch, model or build a prototype

  1. Students will now innovate their medical invention working with their same partner.
    • Note: Depending on time and your classroom supply budget, decide whether you are going to ask your students to 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 around their sketch, or if they have built a model or prototype, create a one-page document.
    • What is the problem your invention is addressing? How does your invention help people?
    • How is your device better than the existing product?
    • List at least THREE problems you came across with your innovations 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 associated with these two inventions. How could the improvements 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 provide feedback to the presenters so that key stakeholders including scientists, lawmakers and other thought leaders might consider supporting the invention.
  5. We would love to hear how you used this project in your class. Tag #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra with images of your students’ presentations. We will share on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

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
    • 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.

2. Invite students to create a proposal to submit their invention to an open innovation medical marketplace partner such as Lemelson-MIT (


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.