Saturday, June 21, 2014

Colonizing Mars STEM Challenge

Do you know that NASA has plans for a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s & Mars One plans to establish a human settlement on Mars in 2023??!! Over 200,000 people have signed up for a one-way ticket to Mars!! I was amazed when I heard about this and right away I designed a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) lesson called "Colonizing Mars". My 4th graders surpassed all my expectations with this STEM project - I am soooo proud of them!! I challenged them to create a Martian colony that would include everything we would need if we landed on Mars tomorrow.
I began the unit by addressing misconceptions using the anchor chart below:

We used pink stickies for misconceptions (Mars has liquid water, Mars is our neighbor so it must be a short trip away, etc.) 

As we went through facts, we added green stickies to represent our facts:

Then we used an iPad augmented reality app called Aurasma - this is such a fun way to present new info/ review facts!! I made up a worksheet and I attached every picture on the worksheet to a short video about Mars.

    Next, I had my students brainstorm - what would you need if you were to live on Mars? There is no food, liquid water, or oxygen there!! It's cold on Mars! There is not a lot of gravity! The answers ran the gamut from the necessary structures such as a hospital, food store, habitats; to the unnecessary but fun malls, movie theaters, arcades. We narrowed it down to the absolute essentials and then everyone started discussing their ideas with their partner. Designs were drawn and labeled and then it was time to start building. 
We followed the Engineering Design Process:
My students were soooo excited to start building their prototypes using recycled materials. I keep a huge 42 gallon contractors garbage bag in one of my school closets and throughout the year, I'm constantly filling it with things people would normally throw away but that I see as building components: toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, plastic cake covers, milk cartons, cereal boxes, etc. My kids were so excited to turn this "trash" into structures. We set some design parameters - the structures couldn't be too big, the perimeters had to be <297 centimeters (approx. the size of 3 pieces of paper). The structure also had to hold the weight of 3 humans, represented by a bag of pennies with a mass of 150 g.

Here are some of the completed designs:

All structures included an oxygen tank and had connecting tunnels so humans could walk around freely indoors without needing spacesuits. Some of my students got so creative with their thinking- adding greenhouses to their structures to provide oxygen, adding a machine that can split the frozen water on Mars into oxygen & hydrogen - their creativity amazed me!!!
I love doing STEM challenges with my students - it's really a time for them to SHINE!! What are your favorite STEM activities? I would love to hear about them. To everyone that has finished the school year: Happy Summer!!!


  1. Wow! This sounds amazing!! Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is awesome! I want to do things like this with my second graders next year. Did you go to a pecific kind of training for STEM, or did you just research on your own. I'm hoping to go to a one day conference/workshop sort of deal this July- but I want to REALLY know what to do, as opposed to just "thinking" I know.
    The Meek Moose

    1. Hi Heather! Thanks so much!! I have been to STEM workshops in the past but I've really figured out how to write STEM lesson plans by designing lessons and then tweaking them after I try them out with my kids. When creating a STEM lesson, I keep in mind the 4 parts of STEM (or even STEAM which adds an art component!) and I also focus on empowering the kids. Part of STEM is allowing the children to realize they they can figure out things for themselves - the teacher is there as the "guide on the side", not the "sage on the stage". I didn't tell my 4th graders how to build their structures, I let them figure things out themselves - through trial and error. When I do STEM lessons with my kids, I always see this great progression- ideas, designs drawn on paper, building prototypes, then re-designing. Try out a STEM lesson with your kids!! I do STEM lessons with all my students in grades K - 4 so I can tell you for sure from experience- they will love it & learn soooo much!!! Let me know if I can be of any help :)

  3. Love your post! We teach a solar system unit in fourth grade and this is perfect. I also love the Ipod app. We have used it at our school and the kids love it. Our art teacher used it to have kids talk about art. I was wondering what you used to add such great narratives to your pictures... Always love your graphics.

    Renee at the Science School Yard

    1. Thank you Renee! I'm going to email you the graphics directions now:)

  4. Love the idea of connecting your photos on worksheets to a video. Great post!


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