K-12 Microbiology Lesson Plans

Scouts looking at pond water under a microscope.

This collection of 25+ lessons facilitates investigations of the microbial world in K-12 science classrooms or through community-based events and programs.  The activities were developed by classroom teachers and microbiologists active in K-12 outreach.  All activities have been reviewed by the ASM K-12 Outreach Committee for scientific and educational content, active learning and engagement, clarity, and alignment with either the National Science Education Standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. Newer lessons use the BSCS 5E instructional model.

Grades K-4

Bacteria That Help and Hurt Cows (Grades K-4)

11/2010
This lesson introduces students to the microbial world and provides insight on the function of microbes by examining bacteria that both help and harm cows. Although multiple bacteria inhabit the cow’s rumen, this lesson focuses on two harmless microbes; Ruminococcus and Selenomonas, which break down cellulose and starch in plant matter, respectively. These bacteria obtain nutrients from the cow’s diet, and the cow gains energy from the products of bacterial metabolism. Therefore, these bacterial species are in a symbiotic relationship with the cow. Other bacterial species can harm cows. Such is the case with Escherichia coli, a non-ruminant bacterium that can cause the udder infection known as mastitis.
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Public Health Scavenger Hunt (Grades K-4)

10/2008
The Public Health Scavenger Hunt is a playful and creative investigation of basic public health concepts for small children. This activity leads them through a series of tasks including exploration and recognition of their surroundings, hygiene recognition, riddle and puzzle solving, and cardiovascular exercise. Students will gain an awareness of not only their surroundings, but also their body’s actions. By completing this activity, students will be able to recognize direct cause and effect relationships, and their creative visual skills will be put to the test.
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What Food Does Yeast Like Best? (Grades K-4)

6/2013
This activity turns a classic student observation activity of yeast generation of gas into a guided inquiry lab. Rather than give the students one sugar, we give them a range of foods to taste for developing hypotheses based upon their analyses of the foods. The students then design the experiment with appropriate controls and carry it out using gas generation in a closed system with a balloon to measure yeast fermentation.
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Extracting DNA from a Banana (Grades K-4, 5-8)

7/2008
The soft flesh of a banana provides a ready source of DNA. Using a few simple purification steps in a classroom setting, students can yield loads of crudely prepared DNA. To begin, the banana is mashed in a detergent/salt solution to lyse the cellular and nuclear membranes. Cellular lysate is strained, then the solubilized DNA is cleansed with a meat tenderizer (which contains an enzyme that breaks apart proteins). Lastly, ethanol is added to generate soft, white, globs of DNA and perhaps – with careful technique – slender threads that may be wound onto a glass rod.
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Pond Scum: Investigating Microorganisms (Grades K-4, 5-8)

10/2007
Little else can stimulate a student’s interest in biology like a drop of pond water teaming with invisible life viewed with a microscope. This activity describes two means of observing pond water other than the traditional hanging drop or temporary wet mount slide preparation.
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What Microbe Are You? Marine Edition (Grades K-4, 5-8)

7/2011
In this hands-on activity, students take an online "personality quiz" where their answers to a set of either/or statements match them with the marine microbes that most closely resemble their personalities. The microbes are given fun code names to circumvent the challenge of pronouncing the microbes' scientific names. Intended as a fun way to begin or end a unit on life science, the students learn about the vast diversity and critical importance of marine microbes.
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Grades 5-8

Extracting DNA from a Banana (Grades K-4, 5-8)

7/2008
The soft flesh of a banana provides a ready source of DNA. Using a few simple purification steps in a classroom setting, students can yield loads of crudely prepared DNA. To begin, the banana is mashed in a detergent/salt solution to lyse the cellular and nuclear membranes. Cellular lysate is strained, then the solubilized DNA is cleansed with a meat tenderizer (which contains an enzyme that breaks apart proteins). Lastly, ethanol is added to generate soft, white, globs of DNA and perhaps – with careful technique – slender threads that may be wound onto a glass rod.
PDF and More Information

 

Pond Scum: Investigating Microorganisms (Grades K-4, 5-8)

10/2007
Little else can stimulate a student’s interest in biology like a drop of pond water teaming with invisible life viewed with a microscope. This activity describes two means of observing pond water other than the traditional hanging drop or temporary wet mount slide preparation.
PDF and More Information

 

What Microbe Are You? Marine Edition (Grades K-4, 5-8)

7/2011
In this hands-on activity, students take an online "personality quiz" where their answers to a set of either/or statements match them with the marine microbes that most closely resemble their personalities. The microbes are given fun code names to circumvent the challenge of pronouncing the microbes' scientific names. Intended as a fun way to begin or end a unit on life science, the students learn about the vast diversity and critical importance of marine microbes.
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Outbreak! Investigating Epidemics (Grades 5-8)

4/2008
This activity simulates how a pathogen can spread among a population. Students will exchange paper with one another to simulate the epidemiology of tracking an infectious agent. After this activity, the students should have a better understanding of how infectious agents spread from person to person and ways to prevent outbreaks. It can be adapted to a variety of scenarios. For example, the infectious agent could be HIV or another pathogen that is spread by human contact. This activity can be used with ASM's Intimate Strangers Episode 6 video podcast.
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What Makes Flatulence? (Grades 5-8)

7/2008
In this exercise, students use a controlled environment to demonstrate the build up of gases in the large intestine. Through their observations, they will better understand the mechanisms that create flatulence (passing gas) and how microorganisms can be beneficial to overall health.
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You Light Up My Life: Bioluminescent Bacteria and Anglerfish (Grades 5-8)

10/2016
This activity introduces students to bacteria by investigating symbiotic relationships. Although symbiotic relationships can be harmful or beneficial, this lesson focuses on helpful bacteria to show students that not all bacteria cause infections. The bacterium focused on in this exercise is Photobacterium (formerly Vibrio) fischeri. P. fischeri, made famous by the movie Finding Nemo, is a bacterium found in the light organ of certain fish and allows the fish to attract prey to survive. Consequently, the bacteria benefit by feeding on the residual prey. The success of this feeding circuitry involves P. fischeri communicating with one another.
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The Effect of Nitrate and Phosphate Levels on the Growth of Algae (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

9/2009
Nitrate and phosphate are useful as fertilizers in agriculture and gardening. Nitrate and phosphate aid agricultural production by producing more abundant crops. However, since the mass production of ammonia during the 1940's by way of the Haber process, it has been noted that a phenomenon known as “nitrate pollution” may occur. This pollution can be demonstrated by conducting this simple experiment, which demonstrates two main ideas. The first is a test of what levels of nitrate and phosphate allow for optimum algal growth.  The second demonstrates at which levels of nitrate and phosphate algal blooms may occur, causing harm to an aquatic ecosystem (Freeman, 2002).
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“I Can’t Live Without You!” A Close-up Examination of Microorganisms Involved in Mutually Beneficial Symbiotic Relationships (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

9/2008
By visiting three stations, each equipped with microscopes, slides, live materials and various supplies arranged by the teacher, students will observe three symbiotic relationships involving microbes. The students prepare wet mounts to observe the microbial symbionts found in the termite gut, lichen, and Rhizobium root nodules.
PDF and More Information

 

Lean, Mean Information Machine: Using a Simple Model to Learn about Chromosomal DNA (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

9/2009
This lesson examines the amount of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in cells. The first part emphasizes math skills as the students determine the size of a bacterium. Then students are asked to decide how long the chromosome of a bacterium is compared to its length using data on known genome sequences. Next, this size differential is demonstrated using a model composed of a plastic egg and dental floss. The learners then are given information about the sizes of other cells and their respective genome lengths and they are asked to investigate the features of one of these organisms and produce a model.
PDF and More Information

 

Microbial Discovery Box (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

11/2007
In this exercise, students examine the impact of microorganisms in our daily life and consider their applied potential. They can also conduct independent research and communicate their findings with the rest of the class.
PDF and More Information

 

Natural Selection (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

7/2008
Using a variety of beans, students will investigate how various microbes can survive and reproduce. They will explain the effects the environment has on the sustainability of a microbial community and the adaptations that allow microbes to survive.
PDF and More Information

 

One of These Things is Not Like the Other (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

4/2008
Using a 50X microviewer, participants will observe textiles and other materials for microscopic similarities and differences. They will construct a game board in which "one is not like the other" and then challenge another participant to decipher the unlike material.
PDF and More Information

 

Quantifying Marine Microbes: A Simulation to Introduce Random Sampling (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

5/2010
This lesson introduces random sampling, one of the key concepts employed by scientists to study the natural environment, including microbial communities. Students first learn about the abundance and diversity of marine microbes. Colored beads in a bag are then used to represent different types of microbes, with the bag itself representing the ocean. Working in groups, each student randomly samples ten "microbes" from the "ocean," and records the data. To learn about the inherent variability of random sampling, the students then compare the composition of their individual samples, their group’s pooled sample data, and that of the entire population.
PDF and More Information

 

The RNA Decoder Ring: Deciphering the Language of Life (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

1/2010
The DNA molecule is often and aptly compared to a written language that uses only 4 letters; A, C, G and T. The linear sequence of these letters provides information that guides the synthesis of RNA and proteins, and through these products, helps define the characteristics and abilities of individual organisms. To assist students in understanding how a 4-letter alphabet can carry coded information and how that information gets translated, we have developed a tool that students can assemble, and activities they can use to decipher the genetic code in fun and familiar ways. The tool is the RNA Decoder Ring that allows students to align the 64 codons specified by the 4-letter genetic alphabet to determine which amino acid each codon encodes. When single letter amino acid abbreviations are used, DNA sequences can be constructed that translate into amino acid sequences that spell out familiar words and phrases in English. We present activities that challenge students to decode messages written in DNA that spell out English words and phrases in their corresponding amino acid sequence. Students are also instructed how to design their own coded messages using the Decoder Ring in reverse. We also provide activities that illustrate the impact that various mutations in the DNA sequence can have on their protein products. Finally, we provide an activity that illustrates how the coded language of DNA is used in cells going from DNA to RNA to the amino acid sequence using the initial portion of the human growth hormone gene.
PDF and More Information

 

The Role of Microorganisms in the Ecosystem (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

4/2008
This lab activity uses a controlled experiment to demonstrate different rates of decomposition for a variety of man-made and natural materials. Microorganisms are ubiquitous in the environment, where they have a variety of essential functions.
PDF and More Information

 

Taking the Mystery Out of DNA: Extracting DNA from Strawberries (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

10/2007
Students will explore how scientists isolate deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, using a strawberry. The activity provides the students with a hands-on approach to DNA isolation. They will learn how cells can be broken open and how the DNA can be separated from the rest of the cellular biological molecules. Although students may recognize DNA as being the genetic material and that it can be used in forensics to identify a killer, most are not exposed to what DNA looks like. This activity brings DNA to life!
PDF and More Information

 

Taste Test: Can Microbes Tell the Difference (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

4/2008
This inquiry-based activity allows students to explore the scientific process of fermentation. During the investigation, students will be responsible for observing and explaining how yeast utilizes various forms of natural sugar and sugar substitutes to produce energy. Students will also discover how the type and amount of food sources can directly influence the metabolic activities of living organisms.
PDF and More Information

 

NEW! Which Microbe Are You? Human Microbiome Edition (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

11/2016
Students explore the human microbiome in this lesson, first by voting on some discussion questions, then by taking a 'microbial personality' quiz that matches them with a particular microbiome microbe. From there, students create concept maps in small groups, incorporating their microbe and some general terms and ideas. Students also create their own quiz question by learning about additional species that are part of our microbiome. Finally, students revisit the discussion questions from the beginning and justify their answers using examples from the human microbiome.
PDF and More Information

 

Grades 9-12

The Effect of Nitrate and Phosphate Levels on the Growth of Algae (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

9/2009
Nitrate and phosphate are useful as fertilizers in agriculture and gardening. Nitrate and phosphate aid agricultural production by producing more abundant crops. However, since the mass production of ammonia during the 1940's by way of the Haber process, it has been noted that a phenomenon known as “nitrate pollution” may occur. This pollution can be demonstrated by conducting this simple experiment, which demonstrates two main ideas. The first is a test of what levels of nitrate and phosphate allow for optimum algal growth.  The second demonstrates at which levels of nitrate and phosphate algal blooms may occur, causing harm to an aquatic ecosystem (Freeman, 2002).
PDF and More Information

 

“I Can’t Live Without You!” A Close-up Examination of Microorganisms Involved in Mutually Beneficial Symbiotic Relationships (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

9/2008
By visiting three stations, each equipped with microscopes, slides, live materials and various supplies arranged by the teacher, students will observe three symbiotic relationships involving microbes. The students prepare wet mounts to observe the microbial symbionts found in the termite gut, lichen, and Rhizobium root nodules.
PDF and More Information

 

Lean, Mean Information Machine: Using a Simple Model to Learn about Chromosomal DNA (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

9/2009
This lesson examines the amount of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in cells. The first part emphasizes math skills as the students determine the size of a bacterium. Then students are asked to decide how long the chromosome of a bacterium is compared to its length using data on known genome sequences. Next, this size differential is demonstrated using a model composed of a plastic egg and dental floss. The learners then are given information about the sizes of other cells and their respective genome lengths and they are asked to investigate the features of one of these organisms and produce a model.
PDF and More Information

 

Microbial Discovery Box (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

11/2007
In this exercise, students examine the impact of microorganisms in our daily life and consider their applied potential. They can also conduct independent research and communicate their findings with the rest of the class.
PDF and More Information

 

Natural Selection (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

7/2008
Using a variety of beans, students will investigate how various microbes can survive and reproduce. They will explain the effects the environment has on the sustainability of a microbial community and the adaptations that allow microbes to survive.
PDF and More Information

 

One of These Things is Not Like the Other (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

4/2008
Using a 50X microviewer, participants will observe textiles and other materials for microscopic similarities and differences. They will construct a game board in which "one is not like the other" and then challenge another participant to decipher the unlike material.
PDF and More Information

 

Quantifying Marine Microbes: A Simulation to Introduce Random Sampling (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

5/2010
This lesson introduces random sampling, one of the key concepts employed by scientists to study the natural environment, including microbial communities. Students first learn about the abundance and diversity of marine microbes. Colored beads in a bag are then used to represent different types of microbes, with the bag itself representing the ocean. Working in groups, each student randomly samples ten "microbes" from the "ocean," and records the data. To learn about the inherent variability of random sampling, the students then compare the composition of their individual samples, their group’s pooled sample data, and that of the entire population.
PDF and More Information

 

The RNA Decoder Ring: Deciphering the Language of Life (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

1/2010
The DNA molecule is often and aptly compared to a written language that uses only 4 letters; A, C, G and T. The linear sequence of these letters provides information that guides the synthesis of RNA and proteins, and through these products, helps define the characteristics and abilities of individual organisms. To assist students in understanding how a 4-letter alphabet can carry coded information and how that information gets translated, we have developed a tool that students can assemble, and activities they can use to decipher the genetic code in fun and familiar ways. The tool is the RNA Decoder Ring that allows students to align the 64 codons specified by the 4-letter genetic alphabet to determine which amino acid each codon encodes. When single letter amino acid abbreviations are used, DNA sequences can be constructed that translate into amino acid sequences that spell out familiar words and phrases in English. We present activities that challenge students to decode messages written in DNA that spell out English words and phrases in their corresponding amino acid sequence. Students are also instructed how to design their own coded messages using the Decoder Ring in reverse. We also provide activities that illustrate the impact that various mutations in the DNA sequence can have on their protein products. Finally, we provide an activity that illustrates how the coded language of DNA is used in cells going from DNA to RNA to the amino acid sequence using the initial portion of the human growth hormone gene.
PDF and More Information

 

The Role of Microorganisms in the Ecosystem (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

4/2008
This lab activity uses a controlled experiment to demonstrate different rates of decomposition for a variety of man-made and natural materials. Microorganisms are ubiquitous in the environment, where they have a variety of essential functions.
PDF and More Information

 

Taking the Mystery Out of DNA: Extracting DNA from Strawberries (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

10/2007
Students will explore how scientists isolate deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, using a strawberry. The activity provides the students with a hands-on approach to DNA isolation. They will learn how cells can be broken open and how the DNA can be separated from the rest of the cellular biological molecules. Although students may recognize DNA as being the genetic material and that it can be used in forensics to identify a killer, most are not exposed to what DNA looks like. This activity brings DNA to life!
PDF and More Information

 

Taste Test: Can Microbes Tell the Difference (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

4/2008
This inquiry-based activity allows students to explore the scientific process of fermentation. During the investigation, students will be responsible for observing and explaining how yeast utilizes various forms of natural sugar and sugar substitutes to produce energy. Students will also discover how the type and amount of food sources can directly influence the metabolic activities of living organisms.
PDF and More Information

 

NEW! Which Microbe Are You? Human Microbiome Edition (Grades 5-8, 9-12)

11/2016
Students explore the human microbiome in this lesson, first by voting on some discussion questions, then by taking a 'microbial personality' quiz that matches them with a particular microbiome microbe. From there, students create concept maps in small groups, incorporating their microbe and some general terms and ideas. Students also create their own quiz question by learning about additional species that are part of our microbiome. Finally, students revisit the discussion questions from the beginning and justify their answers using examples from the human microbiome.
PDF and More Information

 

"Build a Bacterium" Scavenger Hunt (Grades 9-12)

9/2008
In this activity, each student is provided with a worksheet and three index cards. Each card indicates a different prokaryotic cell part (e.g. LPS, capsule, DNA). Students are placed in small groups and receive a written scenario regarding a bacterium with a certain goal it must carry out. They must work together to decide what cell parts are needed to form the basic structure of any cell, as well as to carry out the specific functions required by their scenario. To “build” their bacterium, they must negotiate and trade index cards with other groups to acquire their desired cell parts.
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Earth History: Time Flies, No Matter What the Scale (Grades 9-12)

9/2009
In this two-part activity, the participants are given cartoon drawings representing significant events in the history of the Earth and asked to place them on a timeline made of colored ribbon. Then they mathematically relate the geologic time scale to a yearly calendar. After the calculations, they return to the timeline to reassess the placement of the events.
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Evolution of a DNA Sequence Over Time (Grades 9-12)

9/2008
One of the basic requirements of evolution is variation in a population upon which selection can act. One of the sources of variation is mutation in DNA. These changes may or may not be reflected in the ensuing amino acid sequence of a protein. This exercise explores the additive effects of mutation on an amino acid sequence over several generations. The activity is also useful in that it addresses several of the components of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. There are three separate activities, one regarding sequence change over time, one regarding selective pressure on sequences, and one regarding divergence over time.
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Is It Clean or Just Unseen? Dirty Water and the Naked Eye (Grades 9-12)

5/2010
In this experiment, serial dilution of a contaminated water source is examined for turbidity and bacterial cell count. Because chemical and microbial contaminations are not always visible to the naked eye, the microbial presence will be brought to the attention of the learner by use of viable plate counts.
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Modeling Concepts of 5’, 3’, Antiparallel and Complimentarity in DNA Structure (Grades 9-12)

1/2010
Many students studying DNA structure do not understand or cannot fully visualize the concepts of complementarity, antiparallel structure, and the organization of the 5’ and 3’ ends of a nucleotide strand. This lesson describes a method that works very well to get students actively involved in the process of describing a DNA molecule. Students themselves are used as the nucleotides in this activity.
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Pathogens and Our Defenses (Grades 9-12)

10/2016
In this activity, students play a card game pitting immune, public health, and medical defenses against a variety of pathogens. By mapping which defenses are effective against which pathogens and looking for patterns, students gain a basic understanding of how each defense works. Finally, students are asked to make their own pathogen card and predict which defenses will be effective against it.
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Putting Disinfectants to the Test (Grades 9-12)

4/2015
In this two-part lab, students will sample the indoor environment to estimate how many bacteria are living on surfaces, then test the effectiveness of various household disinfectants on bacterial growth. Students use RODAC petri plates to directly sample surfaces such as benches, desks, or cell phones and then can quantify the number of bacteria detected before and after cleaning with a disinfectant. They will also set up a disc diffusion assay to test the potency of household cleaners and other disinfectants against Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.
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Quantification of Escherichia coli Contamination in Water (Grades 9-12)

8/2012
The lab exercise assumes basic knowledge of prokaryotes (structure, function, metabolism, and respiration) and the functions and limitations of enzymes. Building upon this knowledge and using guided prompts, students brainstorm how to create an agar on which only coliform bacteria will grow and how to differentiate between Escherichia coli and other coliforms based on their enzymes. Finally, students filter surface water and place it on media that differentiates E. coli from other coliforms using an enzyme unique to E. coli. The resulting data are used to determine if the water meets the Minnesota state standards for safe swimming or drinking water.
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