Lesson 1: Inventors & Trailblazers
Grade Level: 3–4
Through this lesson, students learn about 10 African Americans
whose innovations directly impacted transportation, health
care, fashion, and even students’ own lunches! Using
the guided research activities along with the discussion questions
and teaching ideas below, help your students understand how
these inventors’ achievements were significant because
of both what they created and the barriers they often had to
Before reading about the individual inventors, set up a timeline.
Mark the center of your timeline with dates from 1840 to today,
but leave some space at the beginning and end of the timeline
for additional dates. Be sure all students can see the timeline
(outline it on a chalk board, project it on a screen, etc.).
Have students share some “big” facts they know about
history in the years between 1840 and today. Help them fill in
important dates such as the Civil War, World War II, or the Great
Depression. Students can use their textbooks or check the Additional
Resources and Recommended Books for sources that will
help them find exact dates.
Ask students to consider what life was like for African Americans
during each of the periods you’ve marked on the timeline.
Focus on the time before/after/during major events. Some things
for the students to consider:
- How much education did most black children have?
- Where did they live?
- What types of jobs did they have?
- What were some differences between how a typical African
American might have lived and how a middle class white person
might have lived?
Ask students to consider similarities among black Americans,
whites, and other ethnic or demographic groups. Probe them to
consider limitations of technology or science during the various
periods in history.
Teach with the Activities
Meet Notable Inventors:
- Go through The
Top Ten African-American Inventors with students.
Read the facts and explore each of the “Find Out More”
- On the timeline, mark when each inventor lived:
Elijah McCoy 1843–1929
Lewis Latimer 1848–1928
Jan Ernst Matzeliger 1852–1889
Granville T. Woods 1856–1910
George Washington Carver 1860–1943
Madam C. J. Walker 1867–1919
Garrett Morgan 1887–1963
Otis Boykin 1920–1982
Dr. Patricia E. Bath 1949–
Lonnie G. Johnson 1949–
- Discuss how these inventors might have felt to be pioneers.
Have students write a journal entry answering one of the following
- Do you think it was hard for some of these inventors to
prove themselves and their inventions because of their skin
- Why do you think that some of these inventors are not well
- What obstacles did these inventors face?
- How might the inventors and the things they created been
influenced by the times in which they lived?
Put Yourself in their Shoes
Research Historic Figures:
- Using the Additional Resources and Recommended
Books, have students research a notable African American
not featured in The Top Ten African-American Inventors activity
(they may choose another inventor, a musician, politician,
athlete, or other historic figure).
- As they do their independent research, students should take
- When they’ve completed their research, students will
use their notes to create a profile of their person like the
ones featured in the inventor activity.
- Have students present their profiles to the class. Presenters
should be prepared to answer questions from fellow students.
- Invite each student to add their person to the class timeline.
Explore the Traits of a Trailblazer
- Hand out the Honor
Roll Nomination Worksheet. Students should complete the
sheet using information they gather in their research.
- Using their research notes and Honor Roll Nomination Worksheet,
have students write a brief paragraph about why the person
they’ve researched is a trailblazer.
- Work with each student to revise the paragraph, and then
have them submit their paragraph online at Nominate
- Read about the history
of jazz. Add the musicians to your timeline and discuss
how they were trailblazers like the inventors you’ve
just researched. Have students consider these questions:
- How might the inventors and the musicians have had similar
- What differences were there between the inventors and the
- What barriers or prejudices do you think jazz musicians
- Working in small groups, have students use the interactive
timeline on black history. Then have students compare
and contrast the lives of black Americans from two different
periods in history.
- Besides science and music, what other areas do you know African
Americans have been trailblazers?
- What traits seem to be important to be a trailblazer, inventor,
or great musician?
- Do you think these traits are related to race or skin color?
- What would you have done if you were an African American
during the 1700s? during the Civil War? In the early 20th century?
During the civil rights movement?
4th Edition Standards & Benchmarks
Grades K–4 History
- Understands how people over the last 200 years have continued
to struggle to bring liberty and equality, as promised in the
basic principles of American deomcracy, to all groups in American
- Understands the accomplishments of ordinary people in historical
situations and how each struggled for individual rights or
for the common good
- Understands historical figures who believed in the fundamental
democratic values and the significance of these people both
in their historical context and today