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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: How animals help us design new inventions to solve environmental problems

September 22, 2019

Full Lesson


Photo by Michael Palmer 

Since the dawn of time, civilizations have attempted to conquer nature to meet their needs. Novels like The Old Man and the Sea, Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe are filled with classic tales of man at odds with nature. Today, however, engineers are designing more eco-friendly and sustainable inventions that show humans working in conjunction with nature. Innovative systems like dams generate electricity and prevent flooding. Zapping robots transport invasive species like the lionfish to habitats where they will be less of a threat.

In this lesson plan, students will learn how farm animals are serving as ecosystem engineers to improve the output of solar energy farms. Then they will design their own invention to improve an environmental problem using an eco-based solution.

Estimated time

Two 50-minute class periods




Biology, AP Biology, Environmental Science, Engineering


Internet access

Small portable whiteboards

Dry erase markers

Essential question

Should inventors work more with the natural world including animals to solve environmental problems?


Students will research how people are working alongside animals and nature to solve environmental issues, such as pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, soil contamination and more. Using the invention process, students will propose a new eco-based solution in which animals performing their natural or enhanced roles help humans to better manage environmental issues.

Video activity

Watch the PBS NewsHour video How a four-legged mowing system keeps solar farms producing energy to see firsthand how livestock are helping farmers to address a solar energy concern. Then answer the discussion questions below. 

Discussion questions

  1. What issue featured in the video negatively affects the solar power industry?
  2. What challenges are posed in the video and how are the issues being addressed?
  3. What new problems have come from using the sheep?
  4. Could this system be enhanced with an eco-invention to improve the solar output? 
  5. Research and report on the pros and cons of alternative solutions for combating vegetation growth around solar panels, such as herbicides and mowing.

Warm up activity

Directions: Choose one of the following options.

Option 1: Students should research online environmental problems that incorporate a plant, animal, fungus, protist or bacterium to help mitigate the issue. These examples should be shared publicly (verbally or as a list on the board).

Option 2: Have your students research the use of hybrid plants as a means to invent solutions to problems facing botany or plant biology. Did you know that plants have their own category of patents with the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office)? According to the USPTO, “The Plant Patent Act of 1930 was enacted to afford intellectual property protection to inventors who asexually reproduce new varieties of plants. Whether trees that bear more or hybrid fruit, plants that are more resilient to disease, medicinal herbs or ascetically pleasing flowers, the United States-and in fact the world-reaps many benefits derived from advances in plant technology.”

  • Have students create a hybrid plant to better understand the process and gain some hands-on experience in invention-based plants. Learn more about invention-based plants by checking out educational resources by groups like Wisconsin Fast Plants.

What is the invention process?

For a product 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 new recycling devices like eco-friendly bags or new machinery. All of these products were part of the invention process. 

PBS Newshour Classroom’s invention ed lesson series uses a modified definition of the invention process based on Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams definition:

Phases of 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. For the invention lesson here, a sketch of the invention is more than fine!
  • Review and redesign phase: Review the invention for strengths and weaknesses.
  • Share phase: Present the invention to your class as well as to key stakeholders who may be interested in your invention. Did you know that there is no age minimum to apply for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office? 

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 Smithsonian article When Animals Inspire Inventions 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?

Main activity: The invention process

Concept phase

  1. Begin by asking students to identity environmental issues that are plaguing the Earth (teacher jots down ideas on the board). Examples may include air pollution, climate change, species extinction, deforestation, soil degradation, plastic pollution, etc. If students struggle with this brainstorming phase, direct them to United Nations Global Issues.
  2. Working in teams of 2-4 students, each team should select a different environmental problem (broad or on local scale) from the list generated and validate that it is indeed an actual problem.
  3. Research current strategies being employed to combat the environmental issue and identify if any current strategies involve using live organisms as part of the solution.
  4. Brainstorm a list of new solutions with your teammates that partner with a living organism to provide an eco-based solution where humans work in harmony with nature to solve or lessen the impact of the environmental concern. Consider what natural or enhanced abilities the organism possesses that would help to improve the environmental issue. Keeping in mind that genetic engineering of existing organisms or creating hybridized organisms may offer a potential solution.

Design phase

From the list you generated, choose the most feasible option that would be a practical real world option. Keep in mind both expense and challenges you might encounter.

Model phase

With your team, sketch out your idea on a portable whiteboard and provide a short abstract next to your sketch of how the interspecies-based solution or eco-based solution will ameliorate the environmental issue. In your narrative, include an invention statement that summarizes your invention.

Review and redesign phase

  1. Consult with your teacher and classmates and have them examine your strategy to identify both strengths and possible failure analysis.
  2. Revise your ideas on your whiteboard based upon peer and instructor feedback.

Share phase

  1. Present your revised invention to your classmates, highlighting the steps you underwent in the invention process, while showcasing the final proposed model your team developed. Your instructor may require a typed one-page description, PowerPoint presentation or FlipGrid video summary.
  2. Share your inventive solution on PBS NewsHour on Twitter at #PBSInvention to inspire other student inventors via NewsHour Classroom’s Twitter or enter your invention in one of the contests here. Email with any questions or feedback. Your design might even be recognized and awarded cool prizes.
  3. Keep the momentum going and reach out to a local environmental agency and present your proposed interspecies eco-based solution. Your idea just might be the key to resolving the issue!

Extension activities

  1. Investigate the benefits of solar and other alternative forms of energy over fossil fuels and report your findings by creating an infographic-style poster to be displayed in the halls of your school.
  2. Reduce your personal reliance on electricity, firewood or other fuels by constructing a solar-powered cooker out of household items and testing your product on a sunny day.
  3. Check out these NewsHour Extra lesson plans from the “Invention Ed” series
  4. Watch NewsHour’s “How giant African rats are helping uncover deadly land mines in Cambodia” (see transcript here). A Belgian nonprofit organization has deployed an unexpected ally to find land mines in Cambodia: the giant pouch rat, whose sharp sense of smell can detect explosives. Learn the history of land mines in Cambodia, how they continue to pose a lethal threat to many people throughout the world and efforts to remove the mines.
    • Ask your students: Throughout this piece, what inventive devices help the rats do their job? What other inventions do you see in the story? Can you think of other animals like “hero rats” who have helped to save lives?

NGSS Standards

Disciplinary Core Ideas

HS-LS2.C Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience

  • Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment-including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change-can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species.

HS-LS4.D Biodiversity and Humans

  • Humans depend on the living world for the resources and other benefits provided by biodiversity. But human activity is also having adverse impacts on biodiversity through overpopulation, overexploitation, habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Thus sustaining biodiversity so that ecosystem functioning and productivity are maintained is essential to supporting and enhancing life on Earth.

HS-ETS.1A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

  • Humanity faces major global challenges today, such as the need for supplies of clean water and food or for energy sources that minimize pollution, which can be addressed through engineering. These global challenges also may have manifestations in local communities.

HS-ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions

  • When evaluating solutions, it is important to take into account a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, and to consider social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Cross-Cutting Concepts

  • Cause and Effect
  • Systems and System Models
  • Stability and Change

Science and Engineering Practices

  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Developing Models
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Rebecca Brewer teaches Advanced Placement and ninth-grade biology at Troy High School in southeastern Michigan. As an enthusiastic educator with more than 19 years of experience, Rebecca hopes her constructivist approach to instruction—which emphasizes student-led learning—inspires a passion for biological concepts. Outside of school, Rebecca co-authored a high school biology textbook called Biology Now, works for a biotechnology company training teachers on their kits and equipment and creates educational digital resources for Science Friday. She is also the director of Michigan’s Outstanding Biology Teacher Award program, and a former honoree. In 2011, Rebecca won her classroom $27,000 as the top recipient of the ING Unsung Hero Award, and in 2007, she was a named a member of USA Today’s All-USA Teacher Team, which recognizes the top 20 educators in the U.S. You can reach Rebecca on Twitter @brewerbiology.

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.