Inside the Classroom Mission to Mars

Middle School science classes are embarking on an amazing journey. A journey to another world. A mission to Mars. The journey will require extensive planning, experimentation, adjustments along the way, and teamwork among classmates to design and build rockets capable of leaving Earth’s gravity, traveling to and landing safely on Mars, and bringing the resources needed to sustain human life on the alien world.

Mission to Mars rocket picture with three phases

Click on the links below to see the stages of the Mission to Mars Project.

STAGE 3: HOW CAN WE LIVE ON MARS?
The final stage of the Mission to Mars project focuses on how humans might be able to live on and explore Mars. Phases include:
- Passive Solar
- Homes Mars Rover

STAGE 2: HOW CAN WE LAND SAFELY ON MARS?
The science concepts in this stage are thermal energy, heat, surface area and air resistance. Phases include:
- Thermal Protection Systems
- Helicopter Lab
- Design & Build a Landing Vehicle

STAGE 1: HOW DO WE GET THERE?
The main scientific concepts in this stage revolve around action and reaction forces, motion and speed. Phases include:
- Balloon Rockets
- Clinometers
- Tetrahedron
- Alka Seltzer Rockets
- Stomp Rockets

This is a true STEAM project - requiring the integration of science, technology, engineering, art and design, and math in order to successfully develop solutions to the myriad of challenges facing such a journey. Unlike some other STEM or STEAM curricula, every item used in this mission is “homemade” not from a prefabricated kit. From the rockets constructed from paper and tape, to the clinometers that measure height that are actually protractors with string and a paper clip used for counter-weight, to the stomp rocket launchers fabricated from PVC pipes and two-liter soda bottles, and more - the students are thoroughly engaged in every aspect of the project and must constantly use all of the STEAM disciplines to create not only the rockets but the structures that support each phase of testing their designs. And throughout the project, students use their laptops to access Vernier Probeware to collect data from each experiment and test. The students will also be utilizing iMovie and Voice Thread applications on their laptops.

"This kind of hands-on project-based learning is important because it allows students the opportunity to demonstrate what they learn and know through discussion, collaboration, and activity. STEAM projects call on other skill sets that are essential in today’s workplace, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and working as a team, that don’t get a lot of practice in a traditional classroom. This approach helps all students, but in particular students who have learning differences because it teaches them a whole new skill set that is removed from the language and reading areas in which many struggle, engages students in activities that help focus students with attentional challenges, plays to the strengths of students who have strong design and mathematics abilities, and reinforces strong executive functioning processes throughout. - Joy Paul, Teacher

The Mission to Mars is the brainchild of innovative middle school science teacher Joy Paul, and is derived from a STEM conference she attended last year in Minneapolis. Joy has adapted, revised and added to the curriculum presented at the conference for her students at DVFS. Joy is known for her creative STEAM-based projects, which have included constructing and racing solar cars and the design and build of wind turbines. Joy says that this kind of hands-on project-based learning is important because, “ It allows students the opportunity to demonstrate what they learn and know through discussion, collaboration, and activity. STEAM projects call on other skill sets that are essential in today’s workplace, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and working as a team, that don’t get a lot of practice in a traditional classroom. This approach helps all students, but in particular students who have learning differences because it teaches them a whole new skill set that is removed from the language and reading areas in which many struggle, engages students in activities that help focus students with attentional challenges, plays to the strengths of students who have strong design and mathematics abilities, and reinforces strong executive functioning processes throughout.”

Not only are Joy and her students engaged in the Mission to Mars project in science class, but several of the other teachers on the middle school team are working on cross-curricular tie-ins. Kelly McHugh integrated the study of angles into her math curriculum resulting in the new tetrahedron sculpture that now hangs in the school’s main entryway, and English teacher Cass Savage is having her class read a young adult mystery novel that contains connections to engineering concepts. Other possible interdisciplinary projects in the works are: a Language Arts assignment to create a fictional news article interviewing an astronaut going to Mars and an art project in which the students would design a mission patch for their journey.

“I am thrilled that my colleagues are so willing to adapt their curricula in order to contribute to this project in their classes,” adds Joy. “Pulling in cross-curricular activities helps students see connections and can show how these disciplines interact in real situations as well as the importance of all aspects of learning.”

Throughout this STEAM unit, students used design-thinking processes, and wrestled with some of the problems NASA is also working through in the real life Mission to Mars. Students used their understanding of scientific principles, creativity and innovation, trial and error, hypothesis and experimentation, mathematical and presentation skills to complete this unit of study. They learned to work in teams, to listen to and to persuade their peers in developing and implementing specific designs, and to learn from mistakes or failed attempts and make thoughtful adjustments to improve their performance the next time. They worked in interdisciplinary ways to solve multi-faceted problems and communicate their results. They thought like engineers - and had a lot of fun in the process.

This is the power of STEAM/STEM education - real world problems, real world processes, and practical solutions using hands-on, experiential learning. This kind of teaching and learning can open up whole new worlds to students - even ones as far away as Mars.


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