Launching the Mars Project

Mars group leaders

Some of the student leaders for our Mars project at AAI. Out of 13 projects, 7 were led by female students and four were led by 7-8th grade students.

With our first semester seminars done in the middle of January 2017, the students were as ready as they could be to start our school-wide Mars Exploration project at American Academy of Innovation. Whether or not the teachers were ready is another story, but we went ahead and dived right in. As a school with a project-based learning (PBL) emphasis, we wanted to show our willingness to follow our mission even if we didn’t know everything about how to manage a school-wide project. We would learn by doing, and if we made mistakes and didn’t get things completely right, then we would make course corrections as needed and learn how to do it better for next year. We wanted to model the kind of risk-taking and resiliency we hoped to teach to our students.

Group leaders waiting to speak

Some of our Mars Project group leaders waiting to speak about their projects to parents at a Back to School night.

As the first semester ended, we put out a call for proposals. We asked interested students to write up a description (using a rubric we created) for a team project they would like to lead. It could use any approach or be from the perspective of any subject area, but it had to have the central theme of Mars Exploration. Students had to write up a description of what the project would be about, their objectives, the kinds and numbers of students they would have, and a basic timeline of how they would use our project periods with the due date for final presentations being April 28, 2017.

Sarah poster group

Some of the members of the history poster project, including Sarah (back row left) who was the team leader.

We received 14 proposals, but one came in after the deadline and was so incomplete that it had to be disqualified. Our goal was to teach students real-world skills for applying for jobs, so once the proposals were accepted, I posted a description of each project up on the walls all over school and asked other students to choose which teams they wanted to join and sign up for an interview time slot with the team leader(s). They had to write up a resume and a cover letter and provide it to the team leader(s) in advance. We decided (mostly I decided, I have to admit) that students who didn’t apply to be on a team or who weren’t selected would be required to create their own individual or small group projects.

Video game advert-s

I posted descriptions of all the projects all over the school. Students signed up for times to interview with the team leaders. One team decided to post advertisements to recruit the best students. We tried to simulate real world job interview skills.

On the day of the interviews, the team leaders set up tables in the library and students came in during their scheduled times. Some teams had just one leader, others had co-leaders that helped to interview. I was impressed with how well prepared the leaders were, and overall how well the students did who were interviewing for teams. Some interviewed for several teams. We let the team leaders decide who would be on their teams, and if someone was wanted for multiple teams, then the students could decide for themselves.

Interviews 2

Students interviewing for “jobs” on our Mars Project teams. Each student decided which teams to apply for, wrote cover letters and created a resume. The team leaders took their responsibilities very seriously and did a fantastic job interviewing candidates.

We grouped the entire school together, grades 6-11 (we had no seniors that first year). This wound up being an issue as some of the younger students weren’t selected to be on teams because they didn’t put together a convincing resume or didn’t interview well. They didn’t have the experience to self-regulate doing an individual project. Although not getting selected for something you want is a real life experience, sixth grade is a bit young to confront this reality. Even so, many of the sixth graders not in teams spontaneously created their own teams as the project was continuing on. Our biggest problem was those students who didn’t apply to be on a team and didn’t want to do their own projects, either. Given that we billed ourselves as a PBL school, it seems strange that they would choose to come to AAI if they don’t like projects.

Interviews 4

The Mars Novella group leaders interviewing a candidate for their team.

Overall, about 60 students out of 220 were not selected or didn’t apply to be on teams. About 40 of these either formed their own small teams or created individual projects. By my own somewhat inaccurate estimate, about 20 students did not complete any projects. This corresponds fairly well to the percentage of students who get Fs in a class (around 7-8% for my classes). As much as I would like all students to pass, there will always be those that work very hard to fail; I provide many opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have learned, so a student has to be very deliberate about failing. The students who didn’t do projects put a great deal of effort into not doing them, as we had two teachers who worked with them and constantly encouraged them.

As for the main teams, however, we had basically eleven projects. Two teams wanted to build Mars habitats that they could live in for a few days, and at first they were separate. One team jumped out ahead in getting supplies and building their habitat out in a corner of the parking lot by the dumpsters. The other team was slower getting started, so we eventually combined the two and had the second team build a scale model of the habitat. We also had two groups growing plants (radishes, endive, etc.) in simulated Mars soil under different lighting and watering conditions. These were ran through the biology classes, so their data was combined for the final presentations.

Interviews for Mars groups

Mars Project team leaders interviewing candidates in our school library. Some of the teams interviewed in the study rooms and posted their schedules on the doors, some did group interviews, etc.

Here is a rundown of the 11 projects:

Mars Soil Growth Experiment: Our biology teacher was able to run down Mars soil simulant at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, as NASA no longer makes the stuff. He eventually found a second source, so we wound up with a large bag of Martian pseudo soil. They set up an experiment to plant various vegetables (such as radishes and endive) in both Mars and Earth soils and test growth under various light conditions (red light similar to Mars in color and intensity and more white light for Earth) and water conditions. They measured how well the seeds sprouted and measured their growth over about a two month period.

Moustronaut Project: One group wanted to design, build, and test a three-stage rocket to launch a mouse and test it for acceleration and launch stresses under Mars conditions. They added a Bluetooth camera, accelerometer, and altimeter. I insisted that they test the rocket with the instruments but not the mouse (an unmoused mission?) to make sure the mouse would survive before they launched it into the stratosphere. They ordered parts, built the rocket from scratch (not a kit), rescued a white feeder mouse from a pet store that would have been fed to a snake (so they saved its life), and test launched the rocket. I’ll report on how things went in a later post.

Mars Novella Project: One group wanted to write a science fiction novella about a colony on Mars over multiple generations. They drew illustrations for the novel, assigned different chapters to be written by group members, worked out a plot, and edited the final book.

Mars Colony Design Project: One group wanted to use artistic skills to design a layout and illustrations for their own version of a Mars colony (separate from the Novella group or my group’s Arrakeen sculpture). They also helped to paint the Mars habitat in our parking lot.

Mars Exploration History: One group wanted to further research the history of Mars exploration and create a poster of their findings. Once done with this, they started working on a short story about Mars.

Amanda speaking to parents

Amanda, one of our Mars Project team leaders, addressing a group of parents about her Mars Novella project.

Mars Habitat Project: Two groups (later one combined group) designed a working model of a habitat that astronauts could live in on Mars and built it in our parking lot. Their goal was to live inside it for two days and one night, with Mission Control providing crises and monitoring telemetry and biometrics. They got donations of lumber from local stores and the team leader’s father helped them with building the habitat. Weather was a bit of an issue, but they worked on it whenever possible.

Mars Simulation Game: A group created a roll-playing game for groups that involved conflict and resource allotments between several colonies during a crisis on Mars. They worked out the scenarios, wrote up the details and rules, and had most of the studentbody play their simulation during one of our Mars project days, while videotaping and measuring the results.

Mars Computer Game: Another group with expertise in computer programming (some of whom had been in my computer science class the previous semester) designed a video game based on Mars, created the content files, and wrote a program for it using the Unity engine. They had to teach each other programming skills, design the interface, and create the files.

Mars Sports Project: One team, under the leadership of the PE teacher, wanted to design a game that could be played successfully under Mars gravity conditions. They worked out the rules, the game play, the teams and their logos, and built a model of the stadium where the game would be played. Because of budget shortfalls, the PE teacher was laid off in late January just as the project was getting started, so the team student leaders had to step things up and provide all the leadership for the project. They built a prototype goal area and practiced playing the game.

Interviews 3

Interviews for Mars Project groups. The leaders each prepared a list of questions to ask the candidates.

Mars Landing 3D Animation: One team with students from my 3D modeling classes wanted to design a Mars lander and take our space habitat project further. They used several 3D modeling programs, including Blender, Daz3D Carrara and Bryce, and Sculptris to build and assemble the parts of a lander, then add Mars a Mars terrain using MOLA data. A sub-team created a 3D printout of the rocket and test it in a homemade wind tunnel and videotaped the results. I helped to mentor this project somewhat, although the student leader did a good job of working with and training her team.

Mars Project Documentary Video: The main project that I mentored was to document what everyone else was doing with their projects so that we could put together a final video of the whole thing. We collected whatever cameras we could get, including my own cameras, including my Canon videocamera, a GoPro camera, my iPad, and whatever else we could scrounge (cell phones, etc.). I received a grant from the Utah STEM Action Center to buy a new school camera and other equipment part way through the project, which helped a great deal. As we had our Project Friday times, my students would scatter out to the various groups and take photos and videos of their activities. The challenge was getting all those cameras back and downloaded at the end of the day.


Once the projects were underway I coordinated with the team leaders, having weekly meetings with them on Thursdays before project time to teach them some leadership skills and check in on their progress. As for representation in our team leaders and co-leaders, 7 out of 13 were female and 6 male, and four of our projects were led by 7th and 8th grade students. We had a good cross section of subject area types ranging from PE to art to writing to science to digital media.

Once the teams were established and the projects began, the mentor teachers worked with the teams to keep them on track. I focused on having the team leaders stick to a series of deadlines such as having their planning done within two weeks, their design finished over 2-3 weeks, and their prototypes built and tested by the end of March. These milestones followed the engineering design cycle, which I had taught to many students first semester as part of my Innovation Design class. Some teams did better at sticking to the timeline, but by the midway point they were all progressing well even if some were a bit behind schedule.

Some of the student leaders had difficulties working with unmotivated students, and every group had one or two people who were letting their teammates do all the work, the so-called “free rider” problem in any group project. I tried to let the team leaders learn how to solve these problems on their own, with some advice and suggestions, but I did not want to jump in and solve the problems for them. We were trying to train leadership and collaboration skills as much or more than learn about Mars. We eventually allowed team leaders to give warning “pink slips” to non-contributing team members, and a few were “fired” from their teams and asked to join the individual projects group meeting in the library. Once this happened a few times, we had less problems and some of the fired team members successfully applied to be reinstated in their jobs.

Knowing that what we were doing might be of interest in academic circles, I wrote a proposal in January 2017 for a poster at the NASA Lunar and Planetary Science conference held in Houston each March. In my next post, I’ll describe our trip to the conference.

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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