Microbiology Design Challenge

By Steven Fowler, October 15, 2009

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Other

Subject Area

  • Science

Lesson Time

250 minutes for classroom activities and 250 minutes for homework


Students will be asked to design a solution for obtaining clean drinking water in undeveloped countries.  The product must cost less than $5.00 retail and be locally marketable.  (Note: this price may be changed by individual teacher.)  The product must be portable so an individual can carry it.  The product must eliminate pathogens both by size and by a chemical process.  The “drinking straw” will be presented as an idea for the students.

National Standards

Standard 5. Understands the structure and function of cells and organisms Standard 9. Level III. Understands the sources and properties of energy 11. Understands the origins and environmental impacts of renewable and nonrenewable resources, including energy sources like fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas)
Standard 4. Understands the nature of technological design  

Common Core Standards

Anchors for Reading:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Anchor Standards for Writing:

Text Types and Purposes1:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Production and Distribution of Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.5 Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening:

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Students will be able to:
  • describe the water conditions of the “other 90%”
  • analyze the impact of microorganisms in the environment
  • describe the different sizes of microorganisms responsible for disease
  • analyze different types of microorganisms and their defining characteristics
  • describe pathogenic relationships in host/microbe interactions


A general microbiology textbook is required.  As this design task is specifically for a microbiology class, a textbook is assumed. If a textbook is not available, the Internet could serve equally well. Links to Cooper Hewitt water purification designs: http://www.cooperhewitt.org/2011/04/22/cooper-hewitt-design-for-the-other-90-panel-ron-rivera/ http://www.cooperhewitt.org/2007/06/08/light-filters-water/


Materials will vary depending on the design and whether the design is articulated using an actual apparatus or a drawing, etc.


No additional vocabulary is needed beyond what is required for a microbiology course.


(Note: The following is based on “Notes on Design Based Learning” by Meredith Davis.) 1. Review the challenge: Students will be asked to design a solution for obtaining clean drinking water in underdeveloped countries.  The product must be affordable and locally marketable to ensure ownership by the community and the longevity of its use and benefits.  The product must be portable, so an individual can carry it.  The people targeted for this device must be identified.  War is a large contributor in displacement of people around the world.  A permanent water treatment apparatus is not effective for refugees who are on the move fleeing war.  A portable device would be needed.  The product must eliminate pathogens by size and by a chemical process, because viruses are too small for filtration and chlorine may not be effective against larger protists.  Thus a two-step process may be required.  The “drinking straw” will be presented as an idea for the students. 2. Investigate the problem or opportunity: Students will be assigned to read the chapter on environmental microbiology in their textbook.  Most textbooks include a chapter that covers water pollution and lists human pathogens transmitted by water.  Analysis of the range of organisms responsible for disease will emphasize the magnitude of the challenge.  Students should not overlook the importance of understanding their target audience.  Again, the Internet can replace the textbook. 3. Frame or reframe the problem: Now that the students have a background on the problem and the target group, they need basic information to create the criteria for a personal instrument to remove microbes from drinking water.  At this point the chapter on sterilization and disinfection needs to be read by the students.  A class discussion will follow the reading.  The instructor needs to direct the discussion towards antimicrobial chemical agents and their mechanism of action, reminding the students of the effects of such agents on human consumption. 4. Generate possible solutions: Students will be divided into groups of four.  The groups will be asked to brainstorm possible solutions.  A physical copy of the ideas must be produced at the end of the session.  This could be a model, sketch, or writing. 5. Edit and develop ideas: Following feedback from the instructor, students should choose the best idea(s) and develop prototypes.  Again, these could be presented in various forms such as a physical model, a drawing or sketch for development, or writings.  Some visual model should be encouraged, for maximum effect, by the instructor. 6. Share and critique: Groups will informally present ideas to each other.  Each group must give feedback to the presenting group either orally, in written form, or through a model of their own.  This should be emphasized by the instructor as one of the most important steps.  Encourage constructive criticism at every step.  This could be done during the fifth step as well. 7. Finalize the solution: Groups should reconvene and consider the criticism from the other groups and finalize their ideas.  Groups will prepare to present their final idea for a formal presentation. 8. Articulate the solution: Groups will formally present their ideas to an outside group of judges.  Judges could be teachers from different departments throughout the school.  For instance, an art teacher, a social studies teacher, a business teacher, and another science teacher.  The art teacher could judge the design, the social studies teacher could address the issues of the target group, a business teacher could evaluate the potential for marketing, and the other science teacher could address the efficacy of the device.  


A formal rubric for evaluation of the product is discouraged.  Judgment of the final product is too subjective and based on the imagination or lack thereof of the evaluator.  The microbiology objectives could be assessed through any means that already exist in the curriculum.

Enrichment Extension Activities

The ultimate extension is the development of the device.  Its efficacy could be tested, the idea could be patented, and the product could be marketed.  Ultimate evaluation must be left to the target group.  Is the device useful?  Is it needed?  Does it work as designed?  Is it worth the marketed price?  The “across the curriculum” component should be obvious here (e.g. art, social studies, and business). The teacher could develop a method to present an understanding of the target group.  But here again, that would be biased by the understanding of the target audience by the teacher.  Understanding the target audience is subjective and biased.  Many have claimed understanding of a people and what is best for them throughout history (read imperialism).  Let the students come to their own understanding.  Who is to say they are wrong?
  1. While this project does present challenges to formal assessment because of subjectivity, what can be objectively assessed is the student’s ability to gather scientifically valid information. If students were instructed to justify their design choices by showing the hypothesized efficacy of their solution by showing the efficacy of the aspects of their design that have already been tested. For instance, if students include a filtration mechanism, they would need to research the efficacy of a similar filtration mechanism to use that source to back up their design.

    Students could then be objectively graded on their information acquisition, on their ability to find and cite valid information, and on their ability to assemble this information into a coherent presentation.

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