Investigating Social Change | Hiking the Appalachian Trail
The Egg-Drop Experiment | Mission to Mars | Literacy Skills & Reciprocal Teaching
Project 4: Mission to Mars
This activity has been used in the classroom with fourth
and fifth graders as well as graduate students. Each group
seems to be excited by the thought of the many problems
involved in attempting such a journey to a distant planet.
The wonderful aspect of the Mission to Mars problem is
that it really spans multiple age groups. You will find this
problem just as challenging as your students and you will be
amazed at how much you will learn from them as they research
Modeling the Process:
It has been over 25 years since the United States first
stepped foot on the moon. At that time,
predictors of a human expedition to the planet Mars
estimated that preparations and completion of such a journey
would begin by the late 1970s or early 1980s. A number of
factors, economic, political, and technological, have
virtually suspended such a mission indefinitely.
Due to the multitude of factors that need to be
considered, a mission to the planet Mars is considered by
many to be the ultimate in a trip planning problem. This
trip presents a very interesting exercise in 1) problem
generation, 2) problem solving, and 3) distributed expertise
within a learning community.
Your project is to present a feasibility study concerning
a human expedition to the planet Mars. A feasibility study
is a report in which researchers present their findings on
how possible such a major undertaking will be and how it may
be accomplished (if that is their conclusion).
An example of a Mars project.
It is completely possible that students may decide that
it is not currently feasible to consider a human expedition
to Mars. The feasibility report, however, should contain
convincing information and data for either conclusion.
This feasibility study should be concerned with one of
the following areas:
- Trip Route
- Nutrition and Exercise
- Mars Surface and Landing Site Preference
- Analogical Features Between Mars and Earth, or
- Social Factors
Your research should synthesize relevant information,
reference resources, and make suggestions for a course of
Photographs of the surface.
A Mars search engine.
The Theory in Practice
Completion of this problem-project-based unit involves a
three-level approach to problem solving
that you may wish to model in your own classroom.
Level One: Problem generation
This level includes problem posing, problem
definition, and problem categorization. Existing curricula
provide little opportunity for students to generate their
own problems. To facilitate problem generation you may want
to use a
video on a Mars expedition
Video can be found at this site.
Level Two: Knowledge distribution and
This level concerns the distributed nature of
knowledge and expertise, and the need for interaction within
and across "disciplines." While individual students are
primarily interested in the problems which they generate,
sharing across the class should lead to broader intrinsic
interest and awareness of different problems as well as
showing the interdependencies between problems.
Level Three: Using learning tools
This level concerns the educational and
reference resources used to solve selected problems. This
conception of knowledge as "tools" reflects a view of
learning that is much more than simply mastering a specified
body of skills and concepts. Rather than identifying the
essential basic topics that all students should learn, the
focus is on developing ways to help students use the variety
of knowledge available in a way consistent with current
The following chart illustrates the three-level
conceptual model underlying the project. For example,
Problem Generation concerns students' posing,
defining, and categorizing of problems within the domain.
Knowledge Distribution and Teamwork concerns the
small group work and how they lead to the goals of the
larger group, and finally, Using Learning Tools
centers on the educational and reference materials students
may use to solve their own selected problems.
+ Generate problems
+ Define problems
+ Surface feature categorization
+ Collaborative group work
+ Interrelationships between problems
+ Deeper understanding and appreciation of
Knowledge Distribution and Teamwork
Assemble into context area groups to work on
their own problems
Understanding the distributed nature of
knowledge and expertise
Using Learning Tools
Identify and use knowledge to solve problems
Learning as problem solving and learning through
Modeling the Process:
As in the Appalachian Trail Adventure (Problem #2), make
sure you clearly identify and represent the problem that you
are addressing. A possible variation on the simple "problem
generation" task is to further the activity by categorizing
your classes' problems. Notice what categories emerge from
this activity. Most likely the categories will be an
indication of your particular classes' interests, expertise,
and scientific and historical background. Once these
categories are generated, research groups can be assigned
based on interest and research can commence.
Solving this rather open-ended and ill-structured problem
involves gathering information and generating a solution. In
this example, the best you may do in your limited amount of
time is come to appreciate the complexity of the problem.
Remember, the goal of this particular activity is to create
a feasibility study. "Solving" the problem
in this case may mean presenting the best of an option that
you are not 100% comfortable with at the moment. Or, it may
mean presenting to your group that more research needs to be
done before such a study could result in conclusive
determinations. In any event, there are a vast number of
resources at your disposal, (NASA publications, numerous
sites on the web, popular media as well as books at your
local library) to assist you with this scenario.
For this activity, the creation of your feasibility study
should be a 10 to 15-page report accompanied by a 10-minute
multimedia presentation stating your group's research
problem, alternative possibilities, your recommendation, and
If possible, a final statement on areas of needed
research may be useful, depending on the depth and
completeness of your research. Irrespective of your own
university's World Wide Web capabilities,
formatting can be a convenient way to share your research
with other classes doing this project.
Other activities include:
- The creation of a WWW page for organizing and
synthesizing the research your group undertook over the
last few weeks
- A model of a Mars-based habitat for human survival
- A CD-ROM on various NASA-related material centering
on the resources needed for the students to undertake a
"Mission to Mars"adventure
Keep in mind that the creation of a product helps
facilitate the understanding of the concepts and procedures
of what is being studied by the individuals in the group.
We are now beginning to address the possibility of
sharing this information not only with members of our class
but with fellow students from across the country currently
working on the same problem. In this way, we are beginning
to model the process of knowledge acquisition that takes
place within a research community.