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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Design an invention to keep first responders safe

September 17, 2019

Full Lesson


For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here


First responders like firefighters and police officers face dangerous and difficult situations on a regular basis. The intense challenges that emergency situations bring may be reduced by new technological inventions that offer greater protection and new ways to save lives.

This lesson is part of NewsHour Classroom’s “Invention Education” series which takes a look at how the invention process begins–from identifying a problem to solve to designing and redesigning a product to applying for a patent. However big or small, inventions change lives each day.

Estimated time

Five to seven 50-minute class periods




Engineering, Technology, Design, Physics, Science

Overview: Students will identify a problem that police personnel or firefighters experience in various phases of their work. Students will conceptualize, design and fabricate an inventive device. Devices may be a retrofit of an existing device (innovation) or a device not yet produced (invention) that meets the beneficiaries’ needs.

Students will utilize the invention process to ensure that useful and unique devices are fabricated and that they may be transferable into other fields and are marketable. Students will showcase their inventions to first responders in their local community who will review and provide feedback. Take a look at this lesson plan in action by watching the video below! 

Essential question

How do life-saving inventions for first responders help to build stronger, safer communities?

Essential vocabulary

First responder: A trained individual who responds to emergencies

Inventor: A person who invents a process, system or device for a particular use

Beneficiary: Someone who benefits from the use of an invention

Invention: A new product or device that is useful and unique

Innovation: Making changes to an existing product or device such that it is more useful

Constraint: A restriction or limitation

Prototype: Functional draft of a product

PLA Filament: Polylactic acid material used by some 3D printers

Robot: A machine that replicates repetitive human functions and movements

Device: An object made for a particular purpose

System: Things that work together to accomplish a task




Clean recycled materials

Tape (various types)


Optional: PLA (polylactic acid) filament for 3D printing. PLA is recommended for classrooms with ample air ventilation.

Patent stations warm up activity: (Period One: 20 minutes)

Inventions that are useful and unique may be patented by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Did you know that there are no age restrictions on patent applications? While students may have heard terms like “patent pending” or seen U.S. patent numbers on the packaging of products, they probably have little to no knowledge about patents. This warm-up activity will introduce students to patents as they rotate quickly through patent activity stations that have been set-up prior to the beginning of the period. 

Click on the PDF here for directions to the patent station activity.

Resources needed: Paper, pen, access to internet

  1. Students are divided into four groups.
  2. These four groups will rotate through four patent activity stations.
  3. Students will participate in each station activity for four-minutes.
  4. At the end of the rotations, students will briefly share their results as a class. This share session is facilitated by the teacher. Students may work in pairs or alone.

Watch PBS NewsHour videos:

Show Video #1 or #2 depending on which first responders (police or fire) are serving as beneficiaries (see more on this aspect below). After watching the videos, pose the corresponding questions to the students to generate discussion and gauge interest (Period 1: 6 minutes + 5 minutes for Q/A):

Police Video #1: How robots are joining the police force

NewsHour’s science correspondent Miles O’Brien takes a look at a new technology that is increasingly being used by law enforcement: bomb-disarming robots. Operated from a safe distance, these robots can blast through car windows and even kill, raising ethical issues about how they should be used.

Discussion questions:

1. What are the tasks that the robots accomplish for police?

2. How do they accomplish these tasks?

3. Who might be in danger if these robots were not used?

4. What are some of the risks or problems that could arise from using robotic systems?

5. What are some of the ethical issues that have arisen from the use of robotics by police?

Fire Video #2: Tracking Firefighters Through the Smoke

Discussion questions:

1. What problems do firefighters face in a smoke-filled building?

2. What are the risks that come with firefighting? Who is at risk when there is a fire?

3. How does the TRX system work? How could it help? How could it fail?

4. How could this technology transfer into other markets, including commercial and consumer markets?

What is the Invention Process? (Period 1, 15 minutes):

Let your students know that someone — likely a team of people — invented nearly all of the things we use on a daily basis: tablets and TVs, cars and stop lights, apps and video games, etc. All of these products were part of the invention process.

Here’s a brief look at the invention process based on the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams program (modified for the lesson below):

  • 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. For the invention lesson here, a sketch of the invention is sufficient.
  • Review and redesign phase: Review the invention for strengths and weaknesses. Redesign to improve weaknesses.
  • Share phase: Present the invention to your classmates then 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. 

Short activity: Put the invention process phases  into action. Ask students to fill out an Inventor’s Notebook using one of the the first responder issues addressed in the NewsHour videos. Have students fill out the template and let them know they will be using the same Inventor’s Notebook template when they begin their work on their own first responder invention.

Main activity:

1. Identify a problem (Period 2, 20-minutes):

Start off the main activity by asking students: What makes a problem worthy of solving with an invention?

Then let your students know that they will meet with first responders from their community and talk with them about the challenges they face on the job. Examples might include high speed chases, burning structures, back pain from holster belts and helmets falling off of hooks in truck cabs. Have students utilize the University of Iowa Problem Selection Process to help them identify one problem that they want to solve for their beneficiary.

Note: Don’t rush through “Identifying a problem.” This is very challenging and often more time consuming than other aspects of inventing.

Next, students should fill out “Think It” and “Explore It” in their Inventor’s Notebook.

2. Brainstorming and selecting a solution (Period 3, 20-minutes):

Students will work through a number of solutions that they generate and complete an account of their work by completing Science Buddies: Decision Matrix Handout.

Ask your students: Why is it beneficial to have multiple solutions before fabricating a prototype?

3. Design a prototype of selected solution (Periods 3 + 4, 30 + 50 minutes)

Have your students produce a rendering of their design with the objective of creating a functional prototype.

Prototypes can be made without the technology. If CAD and 3D printing are not available, hand sketches to scale and prototype construction from readily available materials such as cardboard, foam core board, cardstock, paper, plastic bottles, tapes, glues, and recyclables are perfectly acceptable. 

Free CAD options are available such as:

Ask your students: What opportunities do computer models provide an engineer that a physical model does not?

Have students enter “Sketch It” into Inventor’s Notebook by including their CAD drawing or a hand sketch. 

4. Fabrication of invention prototype (Period 5, 50 minutes):

Students should slice their CAD files using slicing software and then print their sliced CAD models on a 3D printer in the classroom. Students test their products.

***If 3D printing is not available, students fabricate using hand tools, office products and recyclables.***

Ask your students: What materials selection considerations do you need to consider while fabricating a device for a first responder?

Students should now complete the “Create It” and “Try It” sections of their Inventor’s Notebook.

5. Filing a simulated utility patent – one of three types of U.S. patents (Period 6, 50 minutes):

Students should fill out this patent application template that reflects their invention design process.

Ask your students: What is the importance of protecting your intellectual property with a U.S. patent? Why would an inventor/engineer reflect on a completed project?

Students should complete the “Tweak It” and “Sell It” sections of their Inventor’s Notebook.

6. Showcase of prototypes and patents for the share phase (Period 7, 50 minutes):

Students showcase their prototypes and simulated patents to first responders in a trade show format.  The first responders, beneficiaries of the inventions, review and rank the student prototypes using a rubric.

First Responder Showcase ranking rubric: Link to Showcase Rubric

Be sure to share your experience with PBS NewsHour Classroom (@NewsHourExtra) via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using #PBSInvention as your hashtag.

Extension activities:

Build in time for an engineer from the community to visit and provide students with feedback on the problem they have identified and the solutions they are working towards.  An ideal time for this would be the session after identifying problems with the first responders and prior to fabrication. 


MADESE Engineering Standards Tied to NGSS: HS-ETS 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-5, 1-6, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4

Common Core Standards: Common Core HS Social Studies and Technology 

CC ELA: Reading 1, 7.  Writing 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 10. Speak/Listen 1, 4, 5. Language 1, 2, 4, 6

Doug Scott teaches Engineering and Robotics at Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts. He started off as a business undergraduate student at Framingham State University but was always a lifelong inventor at heart. Doug’s 17-year teaching career sprung from his hockey coaching experiences, which have been instrumental in helping him motivate students through the inventing processes. Doug and the Natick High School InvenTeam participated in the Lemelson-MIT Program’s EurekaFest in 2013. In the spring of 2014, Doug accompanied two student representatives from Natick to the fourth White House Science Fair. Just a few years later, their invention was awarded U.S. Patent 20,140,360,420. Doug was awarded the 2014 Massachusetts STEM Teacher of the Year and continues to be an advocate for invention education for all. Follow Doug on Twitter Follow Doug on Twitter @mrscottbot.

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