Five Ways of Looking at a Mars Lesson

Human fascination with Mars has lasted for millenia, and continues to deepen in light of the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars’ surface in February of this year after a 300 million mile, 7 month journey. The idea of Martians who inhabit the Red Planet has captured our imaginations for a long time and now, because of the human ingenuity and technology behind Perseverance, scientists will be able to study tangible evidence of whether or not signs of ancient life exist on Mars.

For young people in classrooms, this historical event could mean a future of understanding beyond what generations before could ever have imagined. So how can we teach about Mars and space in general for this audience of potential future space explorers? For the 5 educators who follow, teaching about space is an outlet for creativity and an opportunity to inspire young people to keep their eyes skyward.

Suzanne Lohr, National Geographic Certified Educator

I teach about Mars through a collaborative lesson between my AP Biology classes and the Engineering classes at our STEM high school. It is a high-altitude balloon activity where the engineering students prepare the balloon for launch while the AP Biology students prepare a payload of controlled experiments using model organisms to study the effects of harsh environmental conditions, such as those found on Mars. The high-altitude balloon project described above is one that gets students to think outside the box. It is not a laboratory where they simply follow the directions and record results. They need to do some research first about earth’s atmospheric layers. Then they should understand why we can learn quite a bit about factors we must overcome on Mars and other extraterrestrial worlds simply by traveling into the stratosphere and how this region has harsh conditions, such as low temperature, low oxygen, low pressure, and high radiation. Once this baseline is established, they can research what variables they would like to test and what model organisms can best yield measurable data. If possible, they should have a controlled experiment (often the control can remain at the earth’s surface while the experimental group is launched in the payload).

The beauty of this lesson is that it is completely student-designed. Getting results is not guaranteed because the balloon could be lost, irretrievable, or the payload could be lost. But science begins with asking questions. What results they do obtain should lead to reflection, additional questions, and future extensions. With the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars last month, this fits in directly with current STEM- and space-related events. Our school always strives to find opportunities for students to relate what they are learning to the real world. This was one of the most meaningful lessons we have done, and a great deal of this had to do with the open-endedness of the experiment, original experimental design, the ability to study space with feet firmly planted on terra firma, and the anticipation of a successful launch and landing (not unlike when we watched the Perseverance land on Mars!).

Watch Suzanne’s lesson in action here, and check out her lesson here.

Tim Needles, National Geographic Certified Educator

As an art teacher Mars is a terrific subject to incorporate engaging STEAM projects as we create visuals to share our learning about the planet. I love focusing on the amazing potential Mars has both for discovery and exploration with students. We take the time to consider what exists on the uninhabited planet and what it can teach us, as well as what it could mean to our future humanity. The possibility of future missions to Mars no longer feels like science fiction. The Mars rovers allow for amazing learning experiences in school; for example, we recently prepared for our live, virtual Perseverance rover landing party by creating animations and art which we shared on social media to educate the community about the different elements of the rover such as the Ingenuity helicopter, which will be the first powered flight on the planet. We also work on designing future habitats for Mars astronauts with 3D design and printing integrating minimal materials using the Mars Ice House design as a reference. I’ve found that teaching about Mars engages students’ curiosity and sense of inquiry and adventure which helps fuel more empowering self-directed learning. 

Edgar Filipe, National Geographic Certified Educator

With my grade 3 students, I created a Space Agency and over the course of 6 weeks, students were divided in teams working on different projects: Luna, Mars, Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Venus and Titan. Each group had to learn about their destination, find opportunities, and develop a project to invent something new. It was a maker-centered learning unit where the students used a Design Thinking Process as a framework to come up with an end product. Learning about space is always exciting and if the students have an end goal that depends on their curiosity, they will give their best. Space is an interdisciplinary theme where many subjects fit in – Math, Physics, Engineering, Chemistry, and Social Studies. Therefore, students understand how important it is to have a team with different areas of expertise. Mars is a very hostile place that was not made for humans. To conquer Mars, explorers need to be resilient, to plan ahead, to use processes for settlement, to be knowledgeable and flexible. These are all skills considered important for the jobs of the future. When teaching about Mars, educators are preparing their students for the future!

Watch Edgar’s lesson in action here, and check out his lesson and materials here.

A third grade student works on a space project. Photo courtesy Edgar Filipe.

Caroline Little, 2021 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow

I like to begin our lessons on space by asking students to go out and look up at the night sky. Depending on where they live, and the amount of light pollution in their area, what they see may be limited to the moon, or maybe they will be able to make out a few constellations and our neighbor, Mars. Looking up at the stars stirs a sense of wonder in my students. I love teaching about space, and Mars in particular, because we are all called to explore and there is no better way to spark curiosity than to spend a night staring off into the cosmos. Imagine, right now robots from Earth were able to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, and currently roam the red regolith on our neighbor, Mars, gathering data and sending back awe-inspiring images. I really enjoy our unit “Building a Mars Habitat.” I begin by telling students that they have been selected by the “Office of the Mars Exploration Committee” to become Astronaut Explorers on an inaugural mission to Mars. Students receive a two-page letter sealed in an envelope. The excitement in their eyes when they open the letter moves the lesson beyond a typical engineering and design challenge, to an expedition to another world.

It also reinforces the notion that explorers do not explore alone, as students agree to adhere to the three C’s: Communication, Collaboration, and Community during the challenge. Students work together to design mission patches, learn about the geography of Mars, the history of music in space, and finally build a life-size Martian habitat out of biodegradable plastic bags and tape. Students come to class excited, ready to problem solve the next big challenge and feel empowered that what they are doing is making a difference today for the space program tomorrow. There are so many opportunities to inspire students out there! We started our “Year of Wonder” this year by creating postcards through Blue Origin’s Club for the Future. Students’ artwork on postcards were sent to space on the New Shepard Rocket, and we are just getting them back now. Students are inspired and excited that something they created was sent to space and mailed back to them. NASA also has a lot of educational programs and professional development, much of which I have been fortunate enough to participate in with my students; we have designed everything from a lunar rover to Wearable Equipment for Averting Radiation. There is so much out there to inspire the next generation of Astronaut Explorers! 

Check out Caroline’s Mars unit here in English and here in French.

James Falletti, National Geographic Certified Educator

When teaching any topic, especially about Mars, embracing Project Based Learning (PBL) and hands-on activities brings so many learning opportunities. My 6th graders have been gearing up since September to become Junior Astro-Biologists and Astro-Botanists; focussing their studies on cells, biodiversity, tech integration, genetics & DNA, and plant growth. Most recently, we have been working on the Growing Beyond Earth Project which is sponsored by NASA, MARSFarm, and Fairchild Botanical Gardens (Miami, FL). Growing Beyond Earth (GBE) is a classroom-based citizen science project operated in partnership with NASA. It includes a series of plant experiments conducted by students using equipment similar to the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the International Space Station. With experiments currently in progress in more than 250 middle and high schools across the country, GBE is providing a steady stream of valuable data to NASA scientists who are developing technologies for growing food crops for long-duration missions into deep space. Teaching about Mars shouldn’t be about separating from other topics and subjects, but about integrating it by finding the commonalities between them. Once a student finds that connection, we open a whole new world of opportunities to our students, allowing them to become true global citizens and learners. As a global learner and educator, I teach my students to look beyond the textbook and the confines of the four walls to understand and make relationships to global connections. By applying STEAM Education to the curriculum, this ensures that not only do they make the necessary connections globally, but intergalactically as well with the introduction of Space Sciences and STEAM techniques. With this notion in place, the educational cap is limitless – opening newer, better, and bigger possibilities. 

Check out these lessons and more on James’ YouTube channel here.

For more space lessons, check out the National Geographic Resource Library’s collection here. Enroll in our free, online courses to meet peers from around the world, tackle new topics, and gain transformative skills to take back to your learners.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSS

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