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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: How mice could help fight Lyme Disease

July 20, 2018

Full Lesson


If there were an unconventional and even controversial way to stomp out Lyme disease, would you support it? What if that way included the release of thousands of genetically engineered mice into the community? What if it were your community? Several residents of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts say the tick problem has gotten so bad that they’re ready to find out. 

In this lesson, students will watch the PBS NewsHour video, “Could genetically engineered mice reduce Lyme disease?” and learn how impact inventing might help solve this public health problem.

PBS NewsHour Classroom is always looking for ways to make our invention resources stronger. If you complete part or all of this lesson, we’d greatly appreciate it if you filled out this feedback form.




Science, engineering, biology, environmental science

Estimated time

Four 50-minute class


Lyme disease is a serious illness that affects thousands of people across North America each year. In the U.S., more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) each year. But the CDC also reports that the number of people diagnosed with the disease annually totals about 300,000. Lyme bacteria originates in ticks who infect other species like mice and deer who become primary spreaders of the disease.

Not all tick bites result in the iconic bullseye rash (left). Many can leave a large red mark instead. Photos by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Lyme disease can cause fatigue, headaches and muscle soreness. In most cases, the illness can be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to serious neurological and cognitive problems.

In this lesson, students will learn about the power of invention and innovative ways that scientists are hoping to solve the Lyme disease epidemic — the release of thousands of genetically engineered mice.

The experiment is taking place on two well-known island communities in New England, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. By cutting down on the number of mice that are infected with Lyme, scientists hope to cut down on the number of people who will become infected.

Essential question

How can inventions help solve serious public health issues?


Ask your students if they know what animal was the first to be genetically modified.(Answer: Rudolf Jaenisch genetically engineered a mouse in 1974. He continues to work as a genetic engineer at MIT studying cancer and neurological problems and has patented several of his inventions).

Warm up activity

  1. In partners, brainstorm a list of public health problems affecting communities across the U.S. (i.e. Juuling and e-cigarettes). Check out the CDC’s list of public health problems for ideas ( Share together as a class.
  2. Next, have each pair choose one of the problems from the list. Using the internet, ask students to find 2 or 3 solutions to the problem that involved a new invention.
  3. Search for the invention using Google Patent. In their journals, students should record:
    • the name of the invention
    • the inventor(s)
    • what problem the invention solved
    • the invention’s positive and negative effects on people’s lives
  4. Students should share their responses together as a class or with another pair of students.

Note: Let your class know that the main project for the lesson will involve students inventing (or modifying an existing invention) their own solutions to a public health problem that most interests them.

Main activity

  1. Show students the PBS NewsHour video: “Could genetically engineered mice fight Lyme disease?” After the video, ask by a show of hands: If you lived in a community facing a serious Lyme disease problem, would you be willing to release thousands of genetically modified mice into the local ecosystem? Note how many said yes, how many said no and how many gave another option.

But how did scientists end up deciding to introduce genetically modified mice in the first place? This is a good point to discuss the invention process with your students.

2. Check out how MIT-Lemelson InvenTeams define the invention process:

  • Concept phase: Identify a problem, conduct research and brainstorm solutions.
  • Design phase: Create a plan, calculate costs, select the best solution and determine necessary resources.
  • Build phase: Sketch, model or build a prototype.
  • Test and redesign phase: Test and make improvements to your invention.
  • Share phase: Spread the word, come up with ways to convince potential stakeholders that your invention is worth their investment. Apply for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO. There is no age limit to apply for patents and lots of young people hold them.

Note: If you need to find out more about a topic that you may not be familiar with, you have to conduct research and use reliable sources. Check with your teacher or librarian, if you have any questions. For example, if you are trying to help solve the tick problem, start with Johns Hopkins’ Lyme Disease Research Center (Preventing Tick Bites and Lyme Disease). Then research what products have been invented to help fight off ticks and prevent more cases of Lyme disease. We came across this invention: How to Make Your Own Tick Tubes. Do you want to guess if there is a patent on it? Yup!

Refer back to this quick breakdown of the invention process, as needed:

3. Design an invention that improves or solves a public health problem

  • Divide the class into design teams of 2 or 3 students.
    • Have students choose their own public health issue and share it with the teacher. Let students know they will be designing an invention that helps solve the problem or improve it in some way. They may refer back to the CDC website above for ideas or conduct a new internet search.
    • Note: Be sure it is a public health issue students care about. This will make the project a lot more interesting and fun.
  • Each design team will need research tools (computer, books, magazines, etc.) that will allow them to further learn about the problem and see what inventions already exist. Teams should take notes that may be handed in at the end of the project. Be sure to include your sources.
  • Teams will write an elevator pitch to persuade someone to invest in their invention.
    • An elevator pitch is a short speech (think Shark Tank!) that summarizes the most important aspects of a product or service. It takes about the length of an elevator ride—no more than 60 seconds—to deliver.
    • During the presentation, teams can glance at a bulleted-list which explains the problem, the solution and most of all, why it is worth the investment.
    • Think about who might be an authentic audience for each team’s pitch. Key stakeholders (really their classmates) might include local and state officials, scientists, businesses and environmental groups.
  • Have students sketch, model or build a prototype of their invention to share with the class on handouts or the projector. If you have the resources to model or build something, great, but please know that sketches are perfectly fine! Use this sketch that students made for another PBS invention lesson as an example. 
  • Before the presentations, teams should meet with the teacher for sign off on their team’s invention. This will ensure that teams have satisfactorily met the following requirements:
    • problem the invention solves or makes better
    • why they came up with the solution they did
    • any redesigns that were necessary
    • types of jobs that might be created as a result of the invention
    • materials needed
    • unintended negative consequences. For example, in trying to fight off ticks, does the invention harm plants or wildlife? Think about how such problems could be avoided while designing your invention.
  • Presentation guidelines:
    • Each person on the team should have a role in presenting the invention to their class. Teams should hand out copies of their pitch (bulleted-notes are fine), or use the projector, and be sure to explain the key components of the sketch, model or prototype.
    • Teams should take questions from the audience who will provide feedback as if they are key stakeholders, such as city or state officials, scientists, business leaders and environmental groups. Then have the audience decide whether or not the invention is something that they might want to invest in.
    • Consider inviting parents and the public to a second pitch presentation. Make it a contest with a prize!

4. We would love to hear how you used this project in your class. Tag #PBSInventionand @NewsHourExtra via Twitter and Facebook and send images of your students’ inventions. Email with any questions.

Extension activities

  1. Students are natural inventors. Encourage your students to talk with you or your school’s IT coordinator to see if they could turn their invention into a reality. For high school educators in all 50 states, consider applying for a Lemelson–MIT InvenTeams grant to invent student-driven solutions to real-world problems at Lemelson InvenTeams. For grades 7–10 (Massachusetts, Texas, Oregon, and California), check out Lemelson-MIT JV InvenTeams grant opportunity.
  2. Focus on the ethics of genetically modifying organisms.
    • Divide the class into teams of three. One team will defend the genetic modification of organisms, the other will oppose it and the final team will be made up of judges that will hear the case.
    • Both teams will be provided access to the internet to prepare their case. They must cite specific examples in support of their arguments.
    • The team of judges will work with the teacher to prepare a rubric that weighs the value of each of the following categories: use of fact-based evidence, preparedness and organization and lastly, presentation.
  3. Dig into the science with infographics.

  • If your state has not been impacted by an increase in tick population, pick the area closest to you that has shown an increase. Then answer the following questions:
    • How did the tick population change between the years 1998 and 2015?
    • Research and then bar graph the average temperatures and rainfall of your county between those years. Do you notice a trend?
    • Some areas of the map are relatively unaffected by ticks. Share your ideas on why these states may not be as hospitable to ticks as others on the map.
    • How might your research help to explain why the tick population continues to expand across the U.S.?

Tom Jenkins is a middle school science and STEM teacher at Greenon Local Schools in Springfield, Ohio. Tom was named NOAA Teacher at Sea and spent weeks off the Northeastern U.S. Coast in April 2018. Additionally, he is the Science Laureate at the Teaching Channel, a Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and also a NASA SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador. In the past, Tom has served as a Project Manager at the Dayton Regional STEM Center.

PBS NewsHour Classroom is always looking for ways to make our invention resources stronger. If you complete part or all of this lesson, we’d greatly appreciate it if you filled out this feedback form.