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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Inventing assistive devices that give people their independence

September 6, 2019

Full Lesson


What do hearing aids, wheelchairs and prosthetics all have in common? All three are examples of assistive technology that help people with disabilities or the elderly perform daily activities independently or with assistance. In this lesson, students will learn about assistive devices and how innovation plays a key role in the invention process, including raising empathy. Specifically, students will learn how 3D printed prosthetics are changing lives and design their own assistive technology to help others.


Estimated time: Four 45-minute class periods

Grades:   9-12


Science, Biology, Ethics, Engineering, Social Studies, English Language Arts


Using the invention process, teams will be asked to identify a problem that could be solved through a new assistive device or an innovation to an existing invention. They will then sketch, draw or build an assistive device to share with their classmates in 4 to 5 minutes presentations. Students should receive constructive feedback from their peers, work on any redesigns and present their device to real-life stakeholders. An optional activity for schools that have 3D printers will allow students to 3D print their final designs.

Teaching tips:

  1. Keep in mind that the final models will be somewhat crude in nature.
  2. Keep track of time and remind students at regular intervals where they should be in the invention process. Have a countdown timer on the board.
  3. Keep students moving forward. Don’t let them dwell too long on problems they encounter; offer suggestions to keep the process moving forward.

Essential question:

How do assistive devices embrace the power of invention and empathy?

Some important vocabulary:

Ask your students: What do you think the term “assistive technology” means? [main purpose of assistive technologies is to maintain or improve an individual’s functioning and independence and sense of well-being, according to the World Health Organization.] Ask students: What are some examples of assistive technology (i.e. wheelchairs, remote-controlled lift bed, contact lenses)?

Next, ask students: What do you think the term “adaptive device” means? Adaptive devices are a subcategory of assistive technology, specifically designed for a person with disabilities or the elderly, that would seldom be used by non-disabled persons. Ask students: What are some examples of adaptive technology (hand-controlled car, Braille books, click-n-type/virtual keyboard, walking braces). How might adaptive devices create a more inclusive society?

Lastly, introduce students to the acronym “ADL” or “activities of daily living.” Ask students for examples of tasks they do naturally as part of their everyday life that may be challenging for a person with a disability (examples: eating, using the restroom, mobility, bathing, grooming and dressing). Assistive technology can help individuals better perform ADLs.


Hot glue gun

Hot glue

Duct tape


Craft or household items (whatever you have laying around for students to build with i.e… popsicle sticks, paper towel rolls, etc.)

Optional: 3D printer and filament

Watch PBS NewsHour video 

Check out the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ video “How a 3D printed hand gave this girl the gift of play” (click here for the transcript), which aired on national television, and answer the questions below as a class or with a partner.

Discussion questions:

  1. How does 3D printing work?
  2. What is prototyping?
  3. Is there a person in your life who uses an assistive device? How does it help them?

Warm up activity:

Directions: Discuss with your class the meaning of ’empathy’ by creating a mind map.

  1. Write the word “Empathy” in a circle and draw lines out from it. Ask students if they have heard of the term ‘empathy’ and what they know about it. See how far you get and then give the definition to your students. Feel free to use your own or this one from Psychology Today: “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.”
  2. Ask students: Where do they see examples of empathy in the NewsHour segment?

What is the invention process?

PBS NewsHour Extra’s invention ed lesson series uses a modified definition of the “invention process” based on the definition by Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams’ here. 

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: Pick an adaptive device using this article (scroll down a bit for the list of devices) and have students fill out the different phases of the invention process using this Inventor’s Notebook. Let students know they will be filling out this same document when they begin work on their own inventions in the main activity below.

Main Activity

Goal of the activity: Teams will decide on a problem that could be solved by inventing an assistive or adaptive device.

  1. Have students form teams of 3 or 4.
    1. Ask teams to brainstorm a problem that could be solved by inventing an assistive or adaptive device. Be sure to keep students focused on the task and not the solution.
      1. Using a timer, have students brainstorm solutions for 10-12 minutes to the problem they selected. (You may find it useful to read these rules on brainstorming here).
    2. At the conclusion of the brainstorming session, have students spend 5 minutes select one idea the would like to work on. Students should conduct a patent search at this link: on the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website to make sure their idea has not been patented.
  2. Next, students will draw or construct a prototype of their adaptive device using household/craft items like cardboard, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, etc. Students should document their building process making note of unexpected successes and challenges in their work. The documentation should include notes, photos, and sketches to be included in a final presentation.
    1. Teams choosing to use drawings for their presentation should include all views (side views, top view, bottom view) of their design as well as annotations (i.e.. dimensions and notes). This part of the project should conclude at the end of day two.
  3. Using the photos and videos collected during fabrication, the students should create a slide presentation, display board or oral presentation detailing their process in creating their invention.
  4. Finally, on the last day students will present their drawing or prototype to the class or other guests. Be sure student presenters write down all of their feedback from classmates in their engineering notebooks. Ask them what redesigns they would make so as to better catch the attention of key stakeholders who might be interested in working with the students on their invention.
  5. Don’t forget the last step of the invention process: Share it with others! 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.

Optional activity using 3D printers:

With the price of 3D printers becoming more affordable, it has become possible for people to create or customize objects and print them at home or at the office. The instructor should 3D print hand kits prior to starting this project. They should also assemble a cache of various screws, small bolts, bubble wrap, cardboard, etc. Also, collect small pieces of foam, potato chip cans and other materials that could be used in the project. Part of the invention process involves asking students to see to see beyond the obvious and use these common items in uncommon ways.


  1. Prior to starting this activity familiarize yourself with the Phoenix v2 hand. Print a complete hand for each group, assembling the palm and gauntlet. The final product should be a combination of 3d printed components and craft or household items.
  2. In student teams of 3 or 4 students, brainstorm ideas for 10-12 minutes that would necessitate a purpose specific 3D printed hand prosthetic using the Phoenix Hand v2 files from the website as a basis for your design. Let the students know that there are no ideas that are too crazy or farfetched at this point. Record ideas on the board. As a class, have each group select an idea from the ideas list on the board.
  3. Then, in groups, students should start sketching their ideas. By the end of the first class, students should submit their design to the teacher for approval.
  4. Using the 3D printed Phoenix Hand and craft/household items, students will start fabricating their inventions. They should take pictures and videos of the fabricating process documenting aspects that worked and didn’t work. This part of the activity should be close to completion at the end of the second day.
  5. Using the photos and videos collected during fabrication, the students should create a slide presentation, display board or oral presentation detailing their process in creating their purpose specific prosthetic.
  6. Finally, on the last day students will present their presentations and prototypes to the class or other guests.

Extension activities

  1. Using CAD  software(Autodesk Inventor, Solidworks, or TinkerCAD), students can a virtual model of their prosthetic. Using the CAD students can print and assemble a working prototype of their prosthetic.
  2. Check out Extra’s new interactive lesson Invent Apps That Help Others and Build Empathy on PBS Learning Media and Extra’s Lesson plan: Build empathy with stories about disabilities.
  3. Watch this NewsHour video about a professor from upstate New York who is transforming the world for young people in need of limbs.


Next Generation Science Standards

HS-ETS1-2. HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

Kevin Warfield is an experienced Project Lead The Way teacher at Greenbrier East High School in Lewisburg, West Virginia, teaching pre-engineering and architecture. Prior to becoming a teacher in 2006, Kevin worked for 15 years in civil engineering and architecture. In 2015, Kevin was named Greenbrier County Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for West Virginia Teacher of the Year. In 2016, Kevin and his team of students were awarded a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant. With this grant, the students invented a building material out of cardboard called Greenbricks. His students work with a local manufacturer to develop prototypes and testing equipment for the window industry. The students also work with an architect in the community on local-real world design problems as well as collaborating on curriculum and design challenges.

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.