Mars Seminars: Preparing for a School-wide PBL

Mars reflected in eye

Mars reflected in an astronaut’s eye. A student project from our Mars Seminars at AAI.

In my previous three posts, I’ve talked about how my students at American Academy of Innovation created an animation of a space habitat for astronauts to live in on their way to Mars, how they learned to use Mars MOLA 3D altitude data, and how they built a Mars colony sculpture. These were all classroom-level projects designed to help prepare them for our school-wide Mars Project second semester. Since these projects were only for my science and technology students, we decided as a faculty that more preparation was needed for all of our students to get up to speed on Mars exploration.

Earthrise over Moon

Earth Rising Over the Moon – a student art project for our Mars Seminars.

We shortened our Friday classes in December and January down to 45 minutes each to make room for an additional Mars Seminar class, with four Fridays altogether. Each teacher came up with classes ranging from one class period to four. Students could choose which class to sign up for each Friday.

Here are some of the seminars:

Mars Art: Our art teacher had students create projects with a space and Mars theme, and we got a wide range of paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

Mars in Fiction: Our Language Arts teacher had students read and discuss Mars related science fiction (with some excursions into other science fiction, such as having them read Dune).

Candy probes seminar

Making Mars probes out of candy, one of my Mars Seminars.

Dumb Ways to Die on Mars: Our PE teacher researched what it would take to stay healthy on the way to Mars and while living there, and had students participate in Mars themed sports activities and games.

Mars Space Probes: I found paper models of Mars space probes online and had students build the models.

Candy probe

A candy Mars probe.

Mars Candy Probes: We also built possible Mars probes using candy and cookies based on actual diagrams of Mars probes. This one was very well attended and very messy, but fun.

Mars Landing Site Selection: Students had to pick a possible landing site for the 2020 Mars Rover based on mission requirements for a safe (relatively flat and crater/boulder free location), scientifically interesting (near areas of long standing water), etc.

Me teaching Mars seminar

Me teaching the Mars Landing Site Selection activity. My science classroom was having cabinets installed, so I had to teach out of the library for about a month.

History of Mars Exploration: Our history teacher provided a seminar on the history of Mars – from Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell to the present.

Financing a Trip to Mars: Our business teacher taught a seminar on researching and estimating how much an actual human expedition to Mars will cost and whether or not such an expense would be worth it.

Mars at night

The Red Planet at Night – Mars glows red-orange in the night sky above a forest on Earth.

While the seminars were going on, we discussed with the students what our final school-wide project would look like and asked any interested students to think of projects they might want to lead and write proposals for. These proposals were due at the end of the semester so that we could decide on them and make preparations. Altogether 13 proposals were accepted, although some groups had to be combined (two on growing plants in Mars soil, two on building a Mars colony module).

Smiley probe

A happy Mars probe.

As our first semester ended, we were approaching the launch of our Mars project. Some of the teachers were nervous to be starting so soon and didn’t think we were ready. I knew there would be challenges and glitches along the way, and that we were jumping in headfirst and more or less blindfolded, but this was the best way for us to learn: by actually doing a project. We could have researched project-based learning for years, taken trips to visit schools that are doing this, and planned this out to the smallest detail and still not have been 100% ready to start. We billed ourselves as American Academy of Innovation, and innovation requires a willingness to take risks. We had prepared ourselves enough that it was time to take a reasonable risk. So off we went!

Phobos colony

Phobos Colony, orbiting Mars

Next post will describe the 13 projects and how student leaders recruited team members.

Mars art projects

Mars Art seminar


About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project ( will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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