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Microbes and Disease

Microbes and Disease

This mosquito's stomach holds a parasite that causes malaria.
Courtesy of the CDC/James Gathany.

  • Grades:
  • Length: Variable


Students investigate a sample of microbes and the diseases associated with them, learn how diseases are transmitted and impact society, and create art projects representing the diseases they have studied. They also learn that many diseases caused by microbes have resulted in serious debilitation and/or loss of human life.

This activity is from The Science of Microbes Teacher's Guide, and is most appropriate for use with students in grades 6-8. Lessons from the guide may be used with other grade levels as deemed appropriate.

The guide is available in print format.

This work was developed in partnership with the Baylor-UT Houston Center for AIDS Research, an NIH-funded program.

Teacher Background

Organisms that cause diseases are called “pathogens,” from the Greek word pathos, or suffering. Most pathogens are microbes, such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi or viruses. Sometimes, we call these tiny pathogens “germs.” Pathogens cause communicable, or infectious, diseases (diseases that can spread from one organism to another). Some diseases are harder to catch than others, because different pathogens are transferred from one organism to another in different ways (through droplets in air or in fluids, through contact with a surface containing the pathogen, from insect bites, etc.). Some pathogens can make you a lot sicker than others, and some can kill.

A widespread outbreak of a disease is called an “epidemic.” An epidemic that spreads broadly throughout the world is referred to as a “pandemic.” This activity highlights six microbe-based diseases with major global historical impacts: cholera, plague, malaria, smallpox, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

Of course, microbes do not cause all diseases. Invertebrates, such as hookworms, tapeworms, etc., also can make people and animals sick. Other illnesses, such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease related to atherosclerosis, and some kinds of cancer, are not caused by infections. But in some cases, diseases thought to be unrelated to microorganisms have been found to be infectious after all. Stomach ulcers are a good example. Scientists now know that the most common cause of peptic ulcers is infection by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori.

Content Advisory 

See the following resources for additional information about HIV/AIDS and advice for discussing HIV/AIDS with students.

  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health (NIH), offers resources on understanding HIV/AIDS: and

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH, offers facts about drug abuse and the link between it and HIV/AIDS:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides up-to-date information on HIV/AIDS prevention:

Objectives and Standards

History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor: Women and men of various social and ethnic backgrounds—with diverse interests, talents, qualities and motivations—engage in the activities of science, engineering and related fields, such as the health professions.

  • Science requires different abilities, depending on such factors as the field of study and type of inquiry.

  • Many individuals have contributed to the traditions of science.

  • Tracing the history of science can show how difficult it was for scientific innovators to break through the accepted ideas of their time and reach the conclusions that we currently take for granted.

Materials and Setup

Materials per Group of Students (See Setup)

  • Paper and supplies for art projects

  • Sheet of paper on which to create an activity concept map

  • 6 copies of the "3-2-1" student sheet

  • 4 copies of one "Disease Information" sheet (all members of a group receive the same disease sheet)

  • Group concept map (ongoing) 


  1. Each group of students (six groups of 4 students) will work with one disease (i.e., one group investigates and presents information about TB, another group works with plague, etc.). Make four copies of each "Disease Information" sheet.

  2. Make 36 copies of the "3-2-1" sheet (six copies per group). As each group presents information on a specific disease, all other groups will complete a "3-2-1" sheet for that disease.

  3. Gather a variety of materials for students to use in their art projects. Place materials in a central location.

Procedure and Extensions

Time: Two class periods, 45 minutes each

  1. Ask students, Do you think diseases have changed history? Do any diseases affect society today? Tell students that they will be learning about diseases that have had impacts worldwide.

  2. Provide each group with a set of "Disease Information" sheets for a single disease. Each student should receive his or her own copy of the sheet.

  3. Instruct each student to read the information on his or her sheet. Depending on students’ reading levels, you may need to provide assistance with the readings.

  4. Have students within each group jointly create a concept map to summarize the important ideas from the group’s "Disease Information" sheet. (At this point, students should be familiar with concept maps.) Then, have each group use its newly-created concept map to prepare a presentation about its assigned disease.

  5. Distribute six copies of the "3-2-1" sheet to each group.

  6. Have each group present its overview to the class. After each presentation, allow all groups, including the one that just presented, five to six minutes to complete a "3-2-1" sheet on the presentation. Repeat the process until all student groups have made their presentations.

  7. As an assessment, have each group work collectively to create a piece of art that illustrates one of the diseases covered, and then write a paragraph explaining how the artwork represents the chosen disease(s).

  8. Ask a student representative from each group to present the group’s artwork in class, along with related information from the readings or other sources.

  9. Allow groups to add information to their concept maps.


Have students create world maps illustrating where each of the six diseases highlighted in this activity still may be found. Geographic maps can be downloaded free from the United Nations Cartographic page at

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Science Education Partnership Award, NIH

Science Education Partnership Award, NIH

Grant Number: 5R25RR018605