HMCo College

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 their topic!


The Problem

The Project

Modeling the Process: Searching | Solving | Creating | Sharing


The Problem

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.



The Project

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).

Web Link
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 action.

Web Link
Photographs of the surface.

Web Link
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 short video on a Mars expedition

Cognitive Strategy

Web Link
Video can be found at this site.

Level Two: Knowledge distribution and teamwork

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.

Cooperative Learning

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 learning theory.


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.





Problem Generation

1. Posing

2. Defining

3. Categorization

+ Generate problems

+ Define problems

+ Surface feature categorization

+ Collaborative group work

+ Interrelationships between problems

+ Deeper understanding and appreciation of interrelationships

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 problem solving


Modeling the Process: Searching | Solving | Creating | Sharing



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 justification.

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, HTML 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.


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