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What Do You Know about Microbes? (pre-assessment)

What Do You Know About Microbes? (pre-assessment)

Transmission electron micrograph of influenza virus particles.
Courtesy of the CDC\Dr. F.A. Murphy.

  • Grades:
  • Length: 60 Minutes


Students take a pre-assessment to determine what they already know about microbes. They also estimate the mass of microbes in the human body and begin building group concept maps.

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 also 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

Microbiologists study organisms consisting of a single cell or a cluster of a few similar cells. Known as microbes or microorganisms, these organisms usually cannot be observed with the naked eye. The term “microbe” was coined by Charles Sedillot, a French scientist. It means any living thing that must be magnified to be visible.

Microbes are the most prevalent organisms on our planet, both in mass and number. They comprise a diverse group and include bacteria, microscopic algae, yeast cells, and even protozoa. Most biologists also consider viruses to be microbes, even though, according to many definitions, viruses are not true “living” organisms.

Microbes produce most of the Earth’s oxygen and are essential parts of all ecosystems. Although some microbes cause illness, others play a role in digestion, disease resistance, and other vital human functions. Microbes also are involved in the production of common foods, including sandwich bread and yogurt. This activity allows students to share their knowledge about microbes.

Objectives and Standards


  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.

  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.

  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.

  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Life Science

  • Some diseases are the result of damage by infection or by other organisms.

  • Populations of organisms can be categorized by the function they serve in an ecosystem.

Materials and Setup

Teacher Materials (see Setup)

  • Glo Germ™ kit (includes a black light) available for purchase online at or

  • graduated cylinder, beaker, or other means to measure one liter of water accurately

  • sturdy plastic bag large enough to hold a one-liter-size bottle

Materials per Group of Students

  • 8 small sticky notes (2 per student)

  • 4 hand lenses

  • 4 pairs of safety goggles

  • 4 small paperclips

  • access to a balance or spring scale (2,000 gm capacity)

  • capped plastic bottle, pre-filled with one liter (measured) of water

  • markers

  • large sheet of poster board or large sheet of paper

  • stopwatch or clock with second hand (for Extension, below)

Materials per Student

  • copy of the student sheet (see Lesson pdf)


Make copies of the student sheet (one per student). Fill water bottles with one liter of water (measure) and replace the caps. Dry any excess water from the outside of the bottles. Place 1 cup of Glo Germ™ powder in the plastic bag. Coat the outside of each bottle with powder by placing it in the bag and shaking gently. The bottles will look dusty, but the powder will glow only under a black light. The specks of powder represent microbes in this activity. After each student has completed the pre-assessment questionnaire, have students work in groups of 4.

Safety Issues

Have students wash hands with soap and water after handling Glo Germ™ powder. Students should avoid contact with eyes and mouth while handling the powder. Students also may wear safety goggles.

Procedure and Extensions

  1. Explain to students that they will be learning about the most numerous organisms on Earth—microbes. However, before starting the unit, they will complete a pre-assessment activity. The pre-assessment questions will require students to reflect on what they already know about microbes. At the end of the unit, students will answer the same questions on the post-assessment.

  2. Distribute copies of the student sheet. Have students complete the questions on their own. Tell students to answer each question using their existing knowledge and experiences.

  3. Collect the student sheets. Ask, Does anyone think he or she knew all the answers? Does anyone have questions or observations? Record questions on chart paper to revisit at the end of the unit. Do not discuss answers to the pre-assessment questions. Students will have an opportunity to review their answers as part of the post-assessment.

  4. Give each student a paperclip. Tell students that the mass (weight) of the clip is approximately one gram (gm). If time allows, have students estimate the mass (weight) of different objects in grams. Have students use a balance or scale to compare their estimates to actual measurements.

  5. Next, have the Materials Mmanager of each group pick up a water bottle that you have treated with Glo Germ™ powder. Ask, What is the mass of the bottle and its contents, in grams? Each member of the group should hold the bottle and estimate (predict) the total mass of the bottle (weight of contents plus weight of the container), in grams.

  6. After everyone has held the bottle, ask students to write their estimates on sticky notes. Create a class bar graph by lining up the notes according to increasing weight in a row across the wall or chalkboard. Stack notes with about the same weights above or below each other in vertical columns.

  7. Tell students the bottle weighs about as much as the microbes in a person’s body—slightly more than 1,000 grams (gm), or 1 kilogram (kg).

  8. Review the graph and discuss students’ estimates. Ask, Was anyone close to the correct weight? Why was it difficult to estimate? At this time, you may want to discuss metric measures and standard equivalents.

  9. Next, ask students to examine their hands, first with the naked eye and then with the hand lens. Ask, Can you see anything?

  10. Bring out the black light(s) and have students examine their hands again under the light. Ask, What do you see? Was it there before? Why couldn’t it be seen? Explain that the glowing material on their hands is a harmless powder that spreads by contact, just as many microbes spread. The powder, however, becomes visible under special lighting conditions. Microbes cannot be observed in the same way.

  11. Ask, What do you know about microbes or microorganisms? Why do you think they are important? (Microbes are organisms too small to be seen without magnification. They are the most prevalent life forms on earth, both in mass and number. Most cannot be seen without a microscope, yet microbes influence every person’s life. Some students may be able to name a few examples, such as bacteria. Students may think all microbes are harmful, but this is not true.) Ask, Why do you think you were taught to always wash your hands before eating and after using the restroom? OR, Have you noticed signs in almost all public restrooms stating that all employees must wash their hands before returning to work? Why might this be? Allow students to discuss their ideas.

  12. Finally, have students discuss what they know about microbes or microorganisms, and ask each group to begin a concept map that demonstrates its collective knowledge of microbes. Tell students that while they may not have much information now, they will be adding to their concept maps throughout the unit. Display the concept maps round the room.


Ask students, How long do you need to wash your hands to make sure they are clean and free of harmful microbes? Write students’ estimates on the board. OR, give each student a sticky note on which to write the number of seconds he or she thinks people must wash their hands to be sure they are clean. Have students create another class bar graph with their estimates. Then, allow students to develop their own experiments to investigate the effectiveness of hand washing techniques or times. Students should examine their hands under the black light before beginning their experiments. Have students devise a uniform strategy for dipping their hands in the Glow Germ™ powder, and then examining their hands under the black lights after washing. Students also should think about other variables, such as water temperature and type of soap used (antibacterial, for example).

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Science Education Partnership Award, NIH

Science Education Partnership Award, NIH

Grant Number: 5R25RR018605