Friday, February 8, 2013

Mission to Mars Activity

Last week our school was give the unique pleasure of hearing from one of our graduates through our Visiting Scientist Program. Jeff Hanley has been a director at NASA for many years, serving as flight commander in mission control on several missions including the repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station. He spoke at some length on the challenges faced when we set our sights on Mars. Even for me, an astronomy teacher, it was eye-opening.

For many years I have done a project in my Astronomy class dealing with placing a base on the moon. This was very timely when then President Bush rallied our engineers to go back to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Unfortunately (especially for Hanley as he was director of the project) now President Obama has shifted NASA away from Moon exploration.

I am shifting the project towards a Mission to Mars. Here is how it works.

  1. I break the class into three groups, two large Engineering Firms and one Mars Mission Council consisting of three students. I choose the groups ahead of time taking care to know who works well together and who the class will accept as their Mars Council. 
  2. The job of the Engineering Firms is to come up with a plan on getting to Mars. There are usually about 8-10 in a group, which seems large. The task is large and they need all the manpower they can get. Their elected Chief Engineer sets smaller groups to solve the problems with air supply, food, transportation, waste management, recreation, etc.  
  3. The task of the Mars Council is to grade the projects. Part of the Engineering Firm's grade is based on whether their proposal is accepted by the Council (10/60 of the points for the activity). The Council spends their time making rubrics, deciding how long the presentations will be, creating questions for the groups after their presentations, and answering process questions from the groups. They are in charge. 
  4. I move the Council to a completely different room and set them up with a computer. They typically create a generic gmail account for their Council that they can share documents and answer emails from the groups. If one of the Firms has a question about their proposal, they can email the council. The Council can choose to answer if they want too, or ignore it. That is real world. The Firms can not directly talk to the Council. 
  5. I will only talk to the Chief Engineer from each Firm. This sets up a real-life bureaucracy that students begin to get exposure too. 
  6. I set up some focus questions for them online to drive some decisions that need to be made about the Mars Mission. 
  7. They get about three days (full blocks) to work before they give their presentations. Most groups dress up for the presentation, make scale models of their bases, and try to 
Here is a link to the website that I am using for Astronomy. At the bottom is the link to the Mars Mission Project. It has worked really well with the "Moon Lairs" that they have made in the past, I am excited to see if going to Mars will offer more challenges.