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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: How student inventors can help solve the Earth's plastic problem

August 30, 2019

Full Lesson


In less than a century, humans have produced approximately 9 billion tons of plastic waste. As plastic spreads into water and land, we are only just beginning to understand the health risks to humans, animals and plants. Just check out how these animals must navigate the plastic pollution that surrounds them. Recycling has made many individuals more conscious about their use of plastics, but they system is hampered by inefficiencies that call for new and innovative solutions. Through the invention process, students will explore ways to reduce plastic waste and develop solutions to the Earth’s plastic problem. They will also design an invention to cut down on plastic waste in their school, home and community

Estimated time

Three to four 50-minute class periods 




Biology, Environmental Science, Technology, Physics, Engineering, Social Studies, Global Issues, Humanities

Essential question:

How can inventions help to solve the Earth’s plastic problem? 


  • Computers or tablets with internet access
  • Inventor’s notebook
  • Rubber gloves
  • Crafting materials
  • Cardboard or recycled paper products
  • Adhesives- glue, hot glue, tape, etc.

Warm up activity

Directions: Ask students to jot down a list of daily tasks that require plastic and describe what they think happens to the items after they are done using them. Then watch the NewsHour video below (click here for the transcript) to learn about the history of plastic and how it is affecting Earth’s ecosystems. You may also want to watch this video to see what happens to plastic on its recycling journey.

Optional –  Take it a step further:

  • Contact your city government (visit the website) to find out the location of the recycling facilities and see if you can take a tour.
  • Ask students to brainstorm ways they might be able to use current plastic waste products in an inventive way. Have students choose an item from their list and describe different possible uses for the item after it has served its initial purpose.

Watch PBS NewsHour video: 

Next, watch Why it will take more than basic recycling to cut back on plastic, (click here for the transcript) part of NewsHour’s  The Plastic Problem series and answer the discussion questions. 


Discussion questions:

  1. What are some problems with current recycling methods? 
  2. Why does Roland Geyer believe that recycling may be a part of the plastic problem? 
  3. What solutions for the plastic problem were discussed in the video and what impact do you think they will have?


What is the invention process?

For an invention to go from an idea to a finished product, it must go through the engineering design process, or the “invention process.” Let your students know that someone — likely a team of people — invented nearly all of the things we use on a daily basis: cars and stop lights; apps and video games; and recycling devices like new machinery or eco-friendly bags. All of these products were part of the invention process. 

Use this diagram via Lemelson Center’s Spark Lab as a guide:


You may want to use this handout from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which also reviews the invention process with students.


Check for understanding: 

Choose one of the bio-designs from the article 10 Clever Student Inventions That Could Reduce Our Waste and ask students to draw a diagram to represent the invention process using this page from the Inventor’s Notebook. The page is based on the Lemelson Center’s Spark Lab diagram above. Ask students: What steps did they find the easiest to identify? The hardest? In your Inventor’s notebook, draw a diagram to represent your interpretation of the inventions process, explain what steps you would add or take away. 


Main activity

Create an invention that addresses the plastic problem at home, school or in the community! 

For the main activity students will research and identify specific plastic problems in their community, home, or school and design an invention to solve the problem. They should record their progress in their inventor’s notebook using this page, share their ideas with others and analyze feedback to improve their inventions. Their notebook entries should show that they used the invention process guide and should include notes, drawings and data. The main activity is organized to follow the invention process steps from Lemelson Center’s Spark Lab. 

Think, explore and research it!

Great inventions are useful and unique. The goal for this stage of the invention process is to observe, research and identify a problem (including the people the problem impacts) and to develop an original idea for an invention to solve the problem.

  1. Ten-minute field trip: Kick off this activity by allowing students to observe the use of plastic around the school’s campus. Take a 10-minute field trip around the school to assess the plastic problem on campus (pass out rubber gloves to encourage investigation). Using their inventor’s notebook, students should record qualitative and quantitative data about plastic use and misuse around campus. Is there plastic litter on campus? Are there many single use plastic water bottles in trash bins?
  2. One-full day journal assignment: Have students track their daily routines about plastic related issues at home, at school, and in the community in their inventor’s notebook.
    1. They may interview people, collect images and safely collect samples to justify their definition of the plastic problem as they see it.
    2. Students should also record information and analyze current solutions that deal with plastic waste in their environments.
      • For example, the number of recycling bins versus trash bins in a given area. Are the recycling bins filled with trash? Are the trash bins filled with goods that could be recycled?
      • They may also pose questions like “What happens to the used plastic utensils after lunch?” Have them investigate the answers to their questions by interviewing school administrators and the head of cafeteria services.
  3. Next, form teams of 2-4 students and have each group agree to pursue one problem from their findings in the activities above. Have student write out a clearly defined problem statement in which they will have to invent a solution. A good problem statement is concise in describing the issue which the inventors will solve.
    1. Have the students share their problem statement with the class. (Alternative assignment: You may also wish to develop a problem statement as a class.)
      1. Ex. “The single use plastic utensils and straws from lunch contribute to the growing problem of plastic litter on campus and in the local community.”
      2. Ex. “The plastic packaging used to ship online orders is not recyclable and could be replaced by more sustainable and efficient materials.”
  4. Research existing solutions: As the students brainstorm possible solutions for the problem, they should also research existing solutions. Students should research inventions that address the plastic problem to ensure that their own ideas are unique. They may use the U.S. Patent Office’s patent search index or Google Patents or to look for existing designs or products.
  5. Students should narrow down their solutions to just one invention and move on to the next stage of the invention process.

Note: Remind students to continue to record their findings in their notebooks. Keeping good record of this information is essential if they wish to apply for a patent one day. Plus, you will collect notebooks at the end of the project!

Sketch it and create it!

Another responsibility of the inventor involves the design and prototype steps of the invention process with the purpose of testing different iterations of the device. Patents can be awarded for an invention’s aesthetics and function. Think of cellphones, for instance. Many cellular devices have very similar functions, however, they are each protected under patents for the way they look. The goal of this stage is to bring their invention to life by first sketching and annotating the device and then building the device. 

  1. Have students draw their ideas in their notebooks. Remind them to keep in mind scale and perspective when sketching their device. Their sketch should include the following:
    • Parameters and constraints: What will be the size and weight of the device
    • Materials: What materials will make up the actual device? What type of materials will make up the prototype?
    • Include drawings of the top view, side views, and bottom views!
    • If time permits, students should also research the costs of the materials they will use to construct the actual device.

Teachers’ note: This is also a good point to discuss how teams work together to accomplish tasks in set time periods. They may choose to assume specific roles suited for their interests and skills. Examples of some roles include but are not limited to:

  • Presenter
  • Designer
  • Builder
  • Administrator/finance manager
  • Communications director

2. Next, have students build their invention using recycled items or household items. Materials like cardboard, bottle caps, pipe cleaner’s coffee stirs, wooden dowels and basal wood are excellent for rapid prototyping. The use of household items also empowers students to try inventing at home!


Try it and tweak it!

Inventing is an iterative process. Inventors often test, redesign and test their ideas many times before they get to the final product. The goal of this stage is to have students gain feedback, reflect and make changes to improve their prototypes before the final presentation. The prototypes are not expected to work, but they should model how the actual device may look or function.

  1. Allow students the time to try the prototypes and make changes.
  2. Have the students set up a small gallery walk to show their prototype to the class. Place a feedback sheet at each station for the viewers to leave advice for the inventors. Leave a few minutes for the inventors to have a short Q&A session. Students should record feedback in their notebooks.
  3. Upon reviewing their feedback, students should have time to revise their ideas. Remind them to review their designs and make changes to the invention in their notebooks. They may have to go back and completely change the design if they believe that is necessary to get the best product–something inventors have to do all of the time. This is the iteration or “loop” stage of inventing which can last for a long time. You will have to set a time constraint on the redesigning phase.


Sell it! 

To get the inventions in the hands of users, inventors and their partners need to properly communicate the invention’s usefulness and function to stakeholders. The goal of this stage is to have students practice and perform their elevator pitch for their invention as well as develop potential marketing materials to promote the device.

  1. Have the students write a 1-minute elevator pitch to sell their invention to anyone. Watch this example here.

The pitch should address the who, what, when, where, why and how of the issue and solution. Students should be able to convince anyone that they have the best solution for the plastic problem in their community.

2. Students will design a backdrop using one PowerPoint slide. They may include images, quotes, statistics, etc. to support their pitch.

3. Hold a final showcase in which the students will demonstrate and pitch their invention to the class in less than 1-minute. If possible, invite school staff, community members, professionals and parents. Allow time for a few questions or suggestions.

Teacher’s note: As an alternative or in addition to hosting a showcase, the students can record a short infomercial for their invention or start a social media campaign for the issue and their inventions. This can be a whole class initiative that allows the project to grow beyond the walls of the school.


Share it!

Don’t forget this last step of the invention process. Share photos of your invention using #PBSInvention via NewsHour Classroom’s Twitter or enter your invention in one of the contests here or here. Email with any questions or feedback. 


Extension activities

  1. Watch the NewsHour’s  “Scientists study the impact of hidden plastic to curb pollution
    • Discuss the types of products that cause microplastics to leach into aquatic systems.
    • Research the actions your representatives have taken at the city, state or federal levels to address the issue of microplastics. List examples on the board and ask your students: How do STEM issues like microplastics connect to civic engagement? What are ways science and social studies classes could work together more to address issues found in both subjects? 
    • Design a device that can target and remove microplastics in aquatic ecosystems without harming wildlife.
  2. Read NewsHour’s From seaweed to sugarcane, companies race to find the next great plastic replacement and How biodegradable plastic bags don’t live up to their name.
    • What are some problems with plastic alternatives? What factors are preventing industries from making the shift to using plastic alternatives?
    • Choose one of the industries below and research the most used plastic products in that industry. Then design an invention that can replace or reduce the use of that plastic product in your chosen industry.
      • Marine/ aquatics industries
      • Clothing/fashion industry
      • Building/construction
      • Packaging and shipping
      • Transportation
      • Electronics
  3. Check out Classroom’s lesson plan Invent Apps That Help Others and Build Empathy on PBS Learning Media and share your app with us at #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra



HS-ETS1-1 Engineering Design

Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.

 HS-ETS1-2 Engineering Design

Design a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering 

HS-ETS1-3 Engineering Design

Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

HS-ESS3-4 Earth and Human Activity

Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

L. Clara Mabour teaches Biology, AICE (Advanced International Certificate of Education) Marine Science and AICE Global Perspectives at her alma mater, Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Florida. In 2017, she was awarded a Lemelson-MIT Excite Award to travel to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for invention education and professional development. Mabour advises a group of student inventors who received the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant in 2017. Her InvenTeam students created the Mosquito Disruptor, a device that presents mosquitoes from propagating in stagnant waters. In addition, she facilitates an after school STEM club and a new group of young inventors and future scientists who are conducting independent and team research projects that address local and global issues. 

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