Lesson Tell Me Doc—Will I Get Cancer?

Quick Look

Grade Level: 11 (10-12)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Lesson Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Data Analysis and Probability, Physical Science, Physics, Problem Solving, Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

A man examines black and white mammogram films on a wall-mounted light box, looking for signs of breast cancer.
How can we improve cancer prediction?
Copyright © National Cancer Institute, National Human Genome Research Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health http://cancergenome.nih.gov/newsevents/newsannouncements/breastserovca


Students are introduced to the unit challenge—discovering a new way to assess a person's risk of breast cancer. Solving this challenge requires knowledge of refraction and the properties of light. After being introduced to the challenge question, students generate ideas related to solving the challenge, and then read a short online article on optical biosensors that guides their research towards solving the problem.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers are driven to create new methods and devices that improve existing designs and procedures. Some engineers focus specifically on procedures and devices related to identifying and treating medical conditions and diseases such as cancer. In this lesson, students are asked to think like engineers to conceptualize a method by which cancer risk analysis could be more complete and accurate. More specifically, students are challenged to act as materials science engineers, and consider the properties of a certain material, and its potential uses in the medical field.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Explain the challenge question.
  • List one limitation of cancer risk analysis.
  • Describe one possible way cancer risk analysis could be improved.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

HS-ETS1-1. Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants. (Grades 9 - 12)

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This lesson focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Analyze complex real-world problems by specifying criteria and constraints for successful solutions.

Alignment agreement:

Criteria and constraints also include satisfying any requirements set by society, such as taking issues of risk mitigation into account, and they should be quantified to the extent possible and stated in such a way that one can tell if a given design meets them.

Alignment agreement:

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.

Alignment agreement:

New technologies can have deep impacts on society and the environment, including some that were not anticipated. Analysis of costs and benefits is a critical aspect of decisions about technology.

Alignment agreement:

  • Design problems are seldom presented in a clearly defined form. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Identify the design problem to solve and decide whether or not to address it. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Formulate a research plan that addresses a problem to be solved. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/lessons/view/van_oddsofcancer_lesson01] to print or download.


How many of you know someone who has/had cancer? (Ask for a show of hands. Expect a majority of students to respond. Verbally acknowledge the approximate percentage of the class.) Now, how many of you have a relative who has/had cancer? (Again acknowledge the approximate percentage of the class.) As you can see from our informal classroom poll, cancer is a common disease, and it is one with no known cure although many causes of cancer have been identified. As you may know, one predictive link to cancer is through your genes. That means that those of you who have, or had, family members with cancer have a higher risk to get cancer yourself because you may have inherited one or more genes associated with cancer—not a pleasant thought. Wouldn't it be helpful if we had a quick, cost-effective method for determining whether you have those genes? This is the dilemma in which actress Angelina Jolie found herself, as we will see from this unit's challenge question:

"In 2013, actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy, not because she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but merely to lower her cancer risk. But what if she never inherited the gene(s) that are linked to breast cancer and endured surgery unnecessarily? Can we create a new method of assessing people's genetic risks of breast cancer that is both efficient and cost-effective?"

We shall use this Challenge Question to drive our unit for the next week or two, as we explore ways in which cancer risk analysis can be improved, and in doing so, learn about a property of light and optics that we have not yet explored. This may be a new way of learning or approaching a topic, but I know you will find it to be practical, meaningful and fun! To break it down for you, let's begin Generating Ideas by discussing what we know about cancer, and how it is predicted and diagnosed, and then look to an outside source for Multiple Perspectives. After that, we shall Research and Revise our understanding by experimenting with some properties of light via some thin films from cutting-edge research not yet on the market—that's right, you get to see them before the general public—and Test Our Mettle with several problems that are both conceptual and mathematical in nature. Finally, we will Go Public by creating posters that illustrate the results of our work!

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Legacy Cycle Information

This first lesson of the unit covers the Challenge Question, Generate Ideas and Multiple Perspectives phases of the Legacy Cycle (see more information on the Legacy Cycle in the Tell Me the Odds [of Cancer] unit document). After being introduced to the challenge question, have students begin to brainstorm ideas of what information they need to solve the challenge question (see the Lecture Information section below for more details on what this entails). After this, provide students with input from a reliable source (Journal of Medical Technology) to guide/focus their thinking. Subsequent lessons build on this input by exploring the physics concepts and skills related to the challenge question.

Lecture Information

In advance of the lesson, make copies of the Optical Biosensors Article, one per student pair, and Generate Ideas Worksheet, one per student. 

Since students are most likely unfamiliar with the Legacy Cycle, it is helpful to provide them with a detailed explanation on the purpose of each phase of the cycle, as well as what tasks each phase involves. You can include as part of the Introduction/Motivation content. For students more familiar with the engineering design process, draw the parallels to those steps. It is also good practice to state the learning objectives for the day so that students know what they are supposed to learn in the lesson, as well as to keep them from being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Legacy Cycle as a whole.

Next, read (or review) the challenge question aloud. Have student work in pairs to record their ideas on their worksheets. After an adequate amount of time, ask for student volunteers to share their answers as you create a list on the classroom board of concepts that must be considered. (The primary concept you are looking for is the fact that genes cannot be seen with the naked eye.)

Next, ask students, as a class, to organize these concepts into relevant groups, complete with category names. This can be confusing for students, since multiple ways and categories exist for organizing the ideas. Doing this as a class makes it more cohesive for everyone, provided you encourage participation from all. It is helpful to have students write down all these categories on the backs of their worksheets for later reference.

Next, give students time to individually read the optical biosensors article. Then, lead a class discussion to add to the classroom board the key ideas it presents to one or more of the categories students generated.

Lesson Closure

Let's review what we have learned. What societal problem are we trying to solve? (Answer: We want to be able to accurately diagnose an individual's risk of cancer based on the presence of specific genes). Currently, how do doctors determine if a person has any cancer-causing genes? (Answer: By looking at the family history of cancer for the probability of inheriting specific genes.) Based on the article we read, what is one possible way we could detect the presence of cancer-causing genes? (Answer: A biosensor can detect genes within a sample.)

(Conclude by directing students to answer the post-lesson assessment questions provided and described in the Assessment section.)


antigen: An organism or biological molecule that inhibits the normal functioning of an organism.

biosensor: A non-organic (human-made) device capable of detecting biological molecules.

cancer: A disease in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably.

microchip: A slice of semiconducting material used in integrated circuits (small electronics).

mutation: A change in the structure of a gene causing a variant form that can be passed to subsequent generations.

optical: Of or relating to the eye or light.

risk analysis: A method of combining potential factors into a percent probability of an event occurring. Example: "Based on your family history, you have a 55% chance of getting cancer."

wavelength: The straight-line distance between equal points on a wave. Light waves exhibit different properties based on their wavelengths.


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Generate Ideas: After presenting the Introduction/Motivation content and the unit challenge, have student pairs work together to answer the questions on the Generate Ideas Worksheet, which tests their understanding of the challenge question and knowledge about cancer and risk assessment. It also asks students to draw from their prior knowledge to generate ideas about what they will need in order to solve the challenge question. Collect the worksheets and review their responses to assess their base understanding of the topics. Example responses are provided in the Generate Ideas Worksheet Example Answers as a teacher reference. Guide students to work as a class to organize all the concepts into categories, assessing student participation during this process.

Post-Introduction Assessment

Article Comprehension: After reading the online article about optical biosensors, guide students to work as a class to amend and further organize all the concepts. During this process, students demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter by the addition of new categories of concepts to the class list, enabling you to assess student comprehension and participation.

Lesson Summary Assessment

Concluding Questions: Have students answer the following questions in whatever method works best for your classroom, perhaps as journal questions or exit tickets. Write the questions on the classroom board or display them as an overhead transparency or PowerPoint® slide. Collect students' answers at class end. Review their answers to assess their comprehension of the topics covered in the lesson.

  • What need in society are we attempting to solve? (Answer: Accurately diagnosing an individual's risk of cancer based on presence of specific genes.)
  • How do you know if you have any of the genes that cause cancer? (Answer: Current analysis includes looking at one's family history of cancer for the probability of inheriting specific genes.)
  • Name one possible way in which cancer-causing genes could be easily detected. (Answer: Design a biosensor that can detect genes within a sample.)


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Klein, Stacy S., Harris, Alene H. "A User's Guide to the Legacy Cycle." Journal of Education and Human Development. Vol. 1, No. 1, 2007. http://www.scientificjournals.org/journals2007/articles/1088.pdf

Sinnige, Jan. MedGadget. "Optical Biosensor for Continuous Rapid Detection of Health Threats." Posted September 7, 2011. Medgadget Journal of Medical Technology. Accessed June 24, 2013. (An article about a device called a Bragg grating, which can be used to detect pathogens and antibodies; students read the article as part of the lesson.) http://www.medgadget.com/2011/09/optical-biosensor-for-continuous-rapid-detection-of-health-threats.html


© 2014 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2012 Vanderbilt University


Caleb Swartz

Supporting Program

VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under National Science Foundation RET grant nos. 0338092 and 0742871. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: March 27, 2024

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