Engineering a Colony on Mars

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SWBAT use research about Mars to design colonies for the first settlers of this planet.

Big Idea

Would you like to be among the first humans to live on Mar? Design a colony that would have what you need to survive.

The Need for the Lesson

Scientists seek to understand the physical world. Engineers use the knowledge of science to find the best design needed to solve a problem.

Today there is a lot of speculation about establishing a colony on Mars. What will it take to live on Mars?

Students will develop an understanding of the relationship between science and engineering as they develop a research-based prototype of a colony on Mars.

Investigation Preparation & Summary

5 minutes

Students will define the criteria for the success of their Mars colony based upon research about the red planet. The constraints will be established by the building materials and space available. (MS-ETS1.1 - Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.)

A drawing will be created that students will use to build their colony. Each item added to their prototype will be measured against the design document to be certain they are meeting the groups defined criteria for success. (MS-ETS1.2 - Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.)

Students first work independently to create a design for a Mars colony. Once they are finished, students will be assigned to building teams. Each student will present their design ideas to the others. The team will then come to a consensus defining their prototype.  (MS-ETS1.3 - Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.)

An important understanding for students in that engineering is an iterative process. They will design and test solutions multiple times. (MS-ETS1.4 - Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.) (SP8 - Developing and using models)

After completing their prototype, students will present their designs to classroom visitors. They will explain the purpose of each structure represented on the prototype. (WHST.6-8.2 - Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.)

A complete materials list can be found in the resources section.

Students in Action

450 minutes

Can you imagine a colony on Mars?

In this short video, Mars Colony Plans, Hank Green shares his thoughts on a possible Mars colony.

Would you go to Mars? Would you be one of the first colonists on Mars? To my surprise, none of my students are interested in going to Mars.

Since there may be settlers on Mars sometime in the future, what do you think it would take to build a colony that would enable humans to survive on Mars? Students share out several ideas. But also they begin to ask questions; how warm is Mars, is there water, what resources can be used to generate energy? I tell students these are great questions and we should find some answers because as engineers you have been invited to submit a design for a colony on Mars.

Having anticipated their questions, I hand out guided research questions. Our school subscribes to an online encyclopedia and I direct students to start their research there. I explain that we can be certain about the quality and accuracy of the information from this sources. When we research, we want to start with a foundation that we can build upon. The information we have from the online encyclopedia can be used as a standard against which we can compare sites we find using a search engine. If the information found on a site does not match information from the online encyclopedia, that is a good sign that we may have to do some further digging to be certain the site we are on is accurate.

When students finish their guided research, I instruct them to make a list of additional questions they have and create additional notes.

Each student completes the research independently. When they are in groups later, they will have a variety of research notes to use for planning their final prototype design.

You can see Mars Student Research Guided & Independent Student Sample in the resources section.

Next students use their research notes to draw their design idea for a colony on Mars. Each student draws their own colony design independently. When they are finished, I assign students to groups. First students explain their design drawings to the other team members. Then the team comes to a consensus and creates a final draft design drawing of the Mars colony prototype they will build.

You can see Mars Drawings & Team Consensus Student Sample in the resources section. 

Students sign their final design drawing to indicate they all agree on the design and present them to me to be approved to build. 

In this short video, I explain why I think the design drawings are quite possibly the most important part of the project. 

I tell students that their prototypes will be built from recycled / repurposed materials. We have a maker space they can collect supplies from. Additionally I encourage students to bring in materials from home. I also ask students to collect popular items for future projects to keep our maker space stocked. We can never have enough 2-liter plastic bottles for instance.

Students examine the maker space. For each item on their drawing they add a sticky note listing the supplies they will use. This helps with the planning and keeps students from hoarding supplies just in case.

Students begin the building process. This can take as long as two weeks. I watch students as they build and develop a due date after they start. There are several factors to consider when establishing a due date. In some classes, students inspire each other to add a lot of details to there prototype, still others seem to use a great deal of paint, we may be short of popular supplies and students are redesigning to use what is available. I also look at the student work ethic. Poor work ethic can move up the due date.

As students are building, I walk around the room checking on their progress and making sure all student team members are engages. If there is a problem with a student not working as much as the others on a team, we will have a conference. At this point I will work with the team to assign building items from their final drawing to individual team members. We work on this plan until all agree that is is fair. The plan is documented. When it is time to grade the project, I will consult the agreement, grading students individually.

Mars Colonies in Progress

When students are finished with their building, they prepare for public presentation. Students create notes so they can explain the purpose of each item included in the prototype. When presenting, I notice that students rarely refer back to these cards as they have practiced in class before presenting. We are fortunate to have automotive manufacturing in our area and engineers are eager to view student projects. Other classes, teachers, administrators and even the local newspaper arrives on presentation day to see the projects.  

Mar Presentations to Fellow Students

You can see Mars Student Presentations Notes Student Sample in the resource section.