After our return from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference we had about one more month to finish up our school-wide Mars Exploration projects. Thirteen teams had condensed down to eleven and were (for the most part) intently working towards their final presentations on April 28th, 2017. We also had about twelve small group and individual projects that were nearing completion.
There were a number of challenges that had to be overcome, as individual teams and as a faculty and school. For me, it became increasingly clear that I was stretched too thin and trying to take on too much. I’ve never been good at delegating, and in previous schools I had to do all of the project-based activities myself. I forgot that others could help me now. Fortunately, other teachers recognized this and volunteered to take some of the responsibilities on, such as developing a scoring rubric for the final presentations and becoming judges and scorers. I leaned heavily on the team mentor teachers to provide the final push needed to motivate the teams. This final stage is always the hardest – when you think you’re done but are now in the polishing and revision stages of a project, which can take longer than the rest of the project combined.
My own team, led by two amazing 8th graders, did a great job of recording photos and videos but we were behind on the editing phases. I had hoped to find some decent online video editing software and use all of our computers, but there wasn’t any software I could find that could do the job without needing to be downloaded. I had to rely on my own computer for all the editing. This created a bottleneck since only a few students could work on it at a time. Organizing, naming, and storing all the photos and video clips took much of our time, and so our edit of the clips was not done in time for April 28th. In fact, after more than a year, it is still not finished and probably never will be. Instead, I tasked my group with videotaping the final presentations, which took place in several rooms during the school day simultaneously. We also worked up cameras and locations for our evening public event.
Gold Standard project-based learning (PBL) requires a public presentation of student products/projects. We planned this in two stages, both on April 28th. The first would be whole group presentations before faculty and community judges, with a tight set of assessment rubrics. We would videotape these presentations. Then, that evening, we would have an open house event and invite in parents and the community to see the presentations on a rotating schedule in our library. The individual projects were viewed in the gym with a fundraising raffle and refreshments in the main hallway between. I would have liked to spread this out over several days, but the very next week we were going into our first school accreditation and needed to have the Mars project completed before then. It made for a very long and busy day.
Going in to the final week before the deadline, teams were at various stages. Some were done and in good shape and well prepared. Others were stalled out and lacked the concern or motivation to finish, while others were somewhere in-between and a bit panicked over getting things done in time. We increased the amount of Mars project time to accommodate their needs and I worked long hours helping the individual team leaders, going over their draft presentations and making suggestions. I was helping to print out a 3D model of a Mars lander for one sub-team to test in a homemade wind tunnel while teaching Google slides to another team while trying to explain the judging criteria to a third team, all at once.
Finally, the day arrived and the teams were more or less prepared to present. Let me go over their results individually:
Noah’s team was under the mentorship of Bob Warren, our math and engineering teacher. The student leaders were well motivated and self-directed, and had a highly cohesive team. They ordered parts for building a homemade three-stage rocket with large engines and separation charges, a plexiglass compartment for the mouse, and Bluetooth instruments for measuring altitude and G-forces along with a camera. They tested the rocket without the mouse and found the maximum acceleration and deceleration were about 3.0 Gs, mild enough for the mouse to survive. They got some great telemetry and video from the launch.
About two weeks before the final date, they conducted a morning launch of Major Tom the Mousetronaut from our school parking lot. I took photos and video of the group as they placed Major Tom in the capsule and prepared for launch. The rocket streaked skyward, but with a mouse inside, it was slower and had less G-forces than the unmoused launch. It reached about 1200 feet before the top stage separated and the chute ejected.
But the ejection charge was too strong and one of the chute’s lanyards broke. The chute didn’t open but turned into a streamer instead, and Major Tom’s capsule plummeted toward the Earth. I was afraid the mouse was a goner, but when student spotters reached the capsule he was alive and well, although a bit shaken. The telemetry was excellent, and they were able to convert the Earth norms into Mars conditions and draw some great conclusions. They showed some of the video during their presentation, and did very well overall.
3D Mars Lander Animation Project:
Hallee’s group had more of a struggle staying on task, and she eventually split her team into two smaller groups to better accommodate what they wanted to do. One sub-team wanted to create the animation using 3D modeling software (many of them had been in my 3D class or wanted to learn more). A second sub-team, led by a 6th grade student named Carson, decided to take the 3D rocket model, print it out, and test it in a wind tunnel. Once they got their goals straightened out work proceeded at a better pace.
They had some difficulty coordinating their efforts for a final presentation and therefore didn’t do as well for the judges, but the animation had some good sections using Mars data and the videos of the wind tunnel tests were well done. Their tunnel had a clear plastic window and they used smoke to test the air stream. The rocket actually performed quite well in the tests. Their evening presentation was impressive.
Mars Colony Simulation:
Ari’s group developed a role-playing game that simulated various Mars colonies in competition for scarce resources. She asked if we could take an entire Mars project day to have all the groups play the simulation, and most of the school participated on April 21, one week before the final date. Her team did an excellent job monitoring and videotaping the simulation, even interviewing the players during and after as different crises developed and the teams made decisions to either share or steal resources.
Their final video was interesting. It could have used more editing, but they did a valiant effort for the time they had between the simulation and the final date. The participants had fun and found it to be a great learning experience.
The sport team had a major challenge in that their mentor teacher, Rich, was laid off several weeks into the project. As a school we had counted on having the normal Title 1 funds, but as a suburban school in a fairly wealthy area, not enough parents filled out the required paperwork and the funds were denied, leaving us suddenly short in our budget. Two teachers and two support personnel were let go, including two mentor teachers.
The team leaders, Sam and Seth, were able to pick up the pieces and keep going, although it took a few weeks to get their momentum back. Once the team got over the loss, they developed the rules for the game (which was based on Mars gravity), built a model arena, created team names and logos, and built a scale goal post and played the game in our gym (although at Earth gravity – it would have been awesome to watch at Mars gravity). They modified the rules to match their game play, then presented the final rules at our April 28th presentations and displayed the goal post and model arena at our evening event.
Mars Soil Project:
Two teams worked with our biology teacher to plant radishes and endive in simulated Mars soil. He was able to locate some Mars soil simulant at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, and they set up control and experimental groups, testing under Earth and Mars lighting. This was the closest project to a science data experiment, and they collected excellent data for about 45 days.
The biology teacher was the other teacher laid off, so the teams had to consolidate into one and do their best with the long-term substitutes we had, essentially providing their own leadership. Despite the setback they continued to run the experiment and collected great data. At first, all the seeds sprouted well and grew equally well between Earth and Mars soil, but as the plants matured the Mars plants became more sickly and their growth slowed. Eventually all of the Mars plants died or were near death at the end. The Mars soil had more clay particles and became heavy and waterlogged, but mostly the toxins in the soil (chlorates and peroxides) poisoned the plants. So sorry to The Martian – you couldn’t grow potatoes in Mars soil without some extreme chemical reconditioning. You’d be better off importing soil from Earth instead of using the native regolith of Mars, human fertilizer or not.
Their presentation was impressively done and well practiced and was one of our winning group presentations. Unfortunately, neither of the group leaders were able to present at our evening event – one had a job that he had to go to, the other was in the Mousetronaut group and helped to present there, so the public didn’t get to see much of what they had accomplished.
Mars Video Game:
Hannah’s group worked hard on planning and creating content for a video game about Mars. They worked out the game play and levels and learned some programming in the Unity game engine. I knew from the start that this would be difficult to finish in the allotted time, as it takes years to plan, develop, and program a new game. At the end they presented on the how the game would work when it was finished and showed their content files. As a team they worked together well.
Hannah told me part way through that she was very nervous about running a team, as the year before she had been one of the shyest girls in her school. She had done a great job in my computer programming class, and decided to push herself to be a leader. She came through with flying colors despite not having the time to finish the project. There presentation was mostly about what they had learned about teamwork, which is a great thing to learn.
Mars History Poster Project:
This team was led by Sarah and focused on the history of Mars exploration, developing a poster on their research to hang up and discuss as at a history fair or science conference. They got the poster done with time to spare and decided to develop a short story in addition, which they got a good start on.
This was our smallest team. She had problems with one team member goofing off and asked if she could fire him, so I allowed her to give him a pink slip. When he realized he would now have to do an individual project, he petitioned to be reinstated on the team, which Sarah graciously allowed. He did well after that and contributed to the final effort.
There were a couple of small factual errors on the poster, but otherwise it was well designed and researched. Their idea for a short story was interesting, and I wish they could have completed it, but it was in addition to their original proposal anyway.
Mars Novella Project:
This team had two highly motivated girls as team leaders, Amanda and Storm, who worked well together and were great leaders. The group decided on a plot for their novella about a colony on Mars over multiple generations. Chapters were assigned to different team members, and some members designed illustrations of the characters and colony. Amanda and Storm edited and coordinated the final novel and printed out a manuscript of over 40,000 words before the final night, even offering up a copy for the final auction that evening. They were also instrumental in planning much of the evening event and collecting donations for the auction. I relied on them a great deal and they came through with excellence.
Mars Illustrations Group:
Another group decided to plan out and design a colony on Mars, creating a series of illustrations. They created the overall layout, with modules for various functions such as agriculture, oxygen production, living quarters, etc. They drew views inside each module as well as vehicles and rovers for outside use. In their presentation, they added a great deal of research into conditions on Mars and described how their design was a realistic attempt to create a livable habitat. This was a very impressive project with a lot more to it than I had originally assumed. They went above and beyond their original specifications in their proposal, and I enjoyed their evening presentation. They learned a great deal about the reality of conditions on Mars.
This group also helped to paint the Mars habitat.
Mars Habitat Project:
Two groups came up with essentially the same project idea: to build a full-sized habitat for a Mars colony, then live inside it for at least two days and simulate Mars conditions. For example, they would communicate to Earth only through Mission Control and experience a time delay similar to the Earth-Mars light speed delay. They would only go outside in space suits. Mission Control would provide information and run them through a series of crises to test their ability to get along and survive in a closed habitat.
One group, led by Jason, jumped off quickly and started getting donations of lumber and supplies from local hardware stores. Mike, Jason’s father (who also went with us to Houston), brought his tools and helped the students assemble the habitat in our parking lot. By the time we went to Houston, the habitat was almost finished with an octagonal central pod and smaller individual quarters radiating off in three directions, including an air lock in the fourth direction and a bathroom.
The other group was slower in getting organized and didn’t go out and really ask for donations. The teacher mentor was much more reluctant to let the students use power tools, and insisted on building everything himself. When it became apparent that they were not going to get done in time, we made the executive decision to combine the groups and build only one habitat, with the other group building a scale model instead. The model was eventually finished on time.
We had a problem occur about a week after we returned from Houston in that one of the team leaders got into some trouble at school while in the habitat and was withdrawn from the school. The rest of the team, which had started out so well, essentially stalled out. Without the leadership of their teammate, they did not progress. Because the habitat was being used as a kind of clubhouse during lunch, we decided to seal it off until it was time for their test, but they never took the initiative to get the test going.
The mentor teacher was wise enough to let the students learn from their mistakes instead of forcing them to move forward on the project. We talked it over and decided that letting this team fail would be a good educational experience for them. About a week to go before the final deadline, the students realized that they had goofed off too long and they finally put together a presentation on why they had failed and what they learned from that. It was actually one of the better presentations, and shows one of the values of project-based learning: not all teams will succeed, and learning from failure should be an integral part of all education. We do our students a disservice when we prevent them from failing.
In addition to the large team projects, we had about 12 individual or small team projects ready for display during our evening event. Several of them were building Mars-themed mods for Mine Craft using real Mars data. One involved testing a wing shape for a possible flying Mars rover. One small group project by some motivated 6th graders involved testing a material (as an iPhone cover) that resisted shattering, including dropping it on the floor and hitting it with a hammer. This material could be used for Mars landers. One group designed clothing fashions for Mars colonists. We had these projects on display in the gym during the day and then again at night during our evening event, and judges went to each one and voted for a best of show for the individual projects as well as the large group ones.
At the end of the regular school day we needed to set up for the evening event, which we had advertised with flyers all over town and mini-posters sent home to parents. Many of my students volunteered to stay after school and help set up, and I am very grateful to them. I got the cameras charged up as best I could and we moved all the projects downstairs into the library, setting up a projector to show the projects to the public. At 6:00 the show began.
We had about 75 parents and public members come, mostly to see their own students’ presentations, but they stayed to watch the others present as well. Between the group presentations, they visited the individual projects in the gym, and the students there did a great job, especially the wing design and the shatter-proof covering groups. They had the audience try to smash an old iPhone with a hammer. We served refreshments and had various items that had been donated out on display for an auction. We raised some funds for this, not much but enough for a pizza party for the team members later in the year.
The large group presentations were held in the library and were well done and well attended. We videotaped as many as we could (I was running out of camera space by then, what with the presentations earlier in the day) and got many photos. My video group helped out with this, and acted as ushers and helpers. I am most grateful for the students who helped out, and in my opinion the evening was a great success. It was a chance for us as teachers to show off the amazing work these students have done, showcase the school’s PBL mission, and get to know the parents better in an informal setting.
By the time we had finished cleaning up and putting everything away, it was late and I still had a 45 minute drive to get home. I was exhausted and dead on my feet, and could feel a sore throat coming on. I managed to make it home safely, tired but exhilarated at what we had accomplished on this long but memorable day.
In my next post on the Mars project, I will discuss the results and give a final evaluation of what we did right and what we need to improve.