Mission to Mars: Part 1

NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

One of the sequence of lessons I run is based on the theme “Mission to Mars”. Originally this was based purely on a set of missions designed to reach various learning objectives using the LEGO 8547 Mindstorms NXT 2.0 Robot
robotics set.  (I will go into more detail on that at a later date).  While this has been successful I felt that I could round this out into a more varied set of activities that introduce or revisit other skill areas or curriculum knowledge.  To this end I have started to construct a set of of IWB based activites that I have recently shared on teacherLED.com for everyone to use.  These could be useful for any space themed lessons or in most cases as a standalone activity in support of another learning goal.

Here I wanted to discuss in more detail how I use them in my sessions to hopefully give you some ideas on how to incorporate in a way that suits you and your lessons.  This part 1 will give you the background to the resources and how one of them can be used.  Subsequent parts will highlight the use of the other resources


The Mission to Mars sessions are typically 6 sessions of around 2 hours per session.  They are introduced to the children as a set of missions that are meant to simulate the challenges engineers and scientists might face in learning more about Mars either via manned or robotic visits.   The children are broken up into groups and I introduce a competitive element to the challenges by scoring teams on the missions they complete.  I like to keep everything representative of some aspect of reality so this competition allows us to discuss the international competition that resulted in the space race that led to the moon landings.  As I have found 3 children can be usefully employed on the Lego Mindstorms robots that is the group size I use.

Using the IWB

The IWB is used as a kind of mission control point.  Activities are introduced on the IWB either as an emergency situation or a stand-alone activity. 

This depends on the ability of the class as a whole.   The ongoing task of the groups is to construct and program their robots according to the current mission.  If the group is socially and academically able enough the IWB activities become an emergency situation that springs up on the group with no warning.  The group then need to work out who to allocate to the task, or whether to transfer as a whole to the new task, and then pick up the original task later.  This often provides some superb discussions as the children have to honestly appraise their own skills.  They consider efficiency, the value of sacrificing self interest for the good of the team and fairness.  The whole idea of being derailed from one task to another and then back again is often a novel experience for the children.

For weaker children the extent of this derailment is judged on the situation.  In many cases they provide an introductory mission to each session so that they still are able to develop their skills but aren’t overloaded or confused.

However the task is introduced the IWB becomes the focus of the mission and is where the teams’ efforts stand or fall.

The activities

As each group in my sessions has access to a laptop for the robot programming they are able to access what the same resource as is on the IWB and use it as a “simulator” with which they can attempt to improve their skills or find a solution before employing it in the reality of the IWB for all to see.

Mars Circuit

Mars Circuit IWB resource can be found here.

The groups are told that the wiring has become loose on their equipment and that they need to repair it within the constraints of the mission.  (Which are detailed on the resource opening screen).  This usually goes from cries of “impossible” to a solution in quite a short time.  It is by no means a long task so works as a quick derailment task. 

I have also used it in maths lessons to encourage persistence and thinking skills. In all situations I find it important to discuss with the group, after they have completed it, how important it is to not give in too quickly but to think carefully.  It is a useful challenge to the sometimes ingrained habit of children to dismiss a problem as too difficult for them if they don’t see the answer in seconds.

This task does not necessarily need a computer for each group as it is doable on paper and a printable version is downloadable from the site.

When a team believes they have the solution the whole team must memorise it.  One is then randomly selected to  go up to the IWB and put their solution into “reality”.  From the moment they touch the IWB I give them 1 minute to complete the task.   This lack of control over who demonstrates the solution means that weaker members of the team aren’t left in the dark.  Whoever solves it will be required to explain and demonstrate it to the rest of their team.  A great opportunity to develop social and language skills.

 If they fail they may not approach the board again for 2 minutes.  This prevents lots of speculative attempts just to use the IWB.

View part 2 of this series.

View part 3 of this series.