Evaluating the Mars Project at AAI

Mars project winners on Titan

Winning teams for our Mars Exploration project at AAI, visiting Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

Our student teams made their final summative project presentations on April 28, 2017 to teacher judges during the day and to the public in the evening. I wrote about these presentations in my last post. In this post, I want to give a frank evaluation of how we did as a school from a Project Based Learning perspective.

Mousetronaut leaders presenting

Team leaders for the Mousetronaut Group presenting at our community event on April 28, 2017.

According to the Buck Institute for Education (www.bie.org), the Gold Standard for project-based learning design has seven attributes surrounding a core goal of developing key content knowledge, conceptual understanding, and success skills (or 21st Century Skills). These characteristics are:

  1. A Challenging Problem or Question
  2. Opportunity for Sustained Inquiry
  3. Authenticity
  4. Student Voice and Choice
  5. Opportunities for Reflection
  6. Frequent Critique and Revision
  7. A Publicly Presented Product
PBL Gold standard

Diagram from the Buck Institute for Education on the seven characteristics of Gold Standard project-based learning.

Let’s look at each of these through the lens of our Mars Project at American Academy of Innovation (AAI).

  1. A Challenging Problem or Question: Our theme was the exploration of Mars, which certainly poses a challenge. Knowing that Mars will kill a person in under three minutes three different ways makes sending people there a difficult proposition, not even considering the great distance and logistics. Understanding these difficulties was our first task. That’s why we created the Mars seminar classes first semester, to get our students up to speed on the basics of Mars and its challenges. I cannot say that we were entirely effective in preparing the students with the needed background information, mostly because the teachers themselves weren’t up to speed. Some did better than others – I’ve studied Mars a great deal and know the orbital mechanics of getting there and back and the conditions there, but even I didn’t have enough time to make sure all of my seminar students had the training they would need to be effective on our projects. Other teachers sought out the knowledge they would need, but were more or less motivated as to how far they were willing to prepare.

The exploration of Mars is not nearly as easy as originally envisioned by early space experts. Walking outside without a spacesuit will kill you three ways at once. Just getting there safely will be a major undertaking, let alone the 30 month round trip.

Of course, part of PBL is that content knowledge comes naturally through the process of building projects and is student-centered, not teacher directed. They will learn what they need to know to be successful in their projects, and for the most part this proved true for our students. The Mousetronaut group learned how to build a 3-stage rocket on their own (with help from Mr. Warren, their mentor teacher) and how to measure and calculate the g-forces for acceleration and landing and the altitude of the rocket. Their project was as much engineering as it was science, and they built, tested, and revised their prototype rocket through applying the engineering design cycle.

Storm presenting

One of the team leaders for the Mars Novel project, getting ready to present.

Other teams had to learn some basic knowledge and develop skills to complete their projects, which was the challenging part of this PBL experience. The habitat group had to design, build, revise, and rebuild their habitat. They learned some building skills and how to work with tools and cut wooden beams. The other habitat group didn’t gain these skills because the mentor teacher was reluctant to have them use power tools, so they accomplished very little as a team since they weren’t really given a challenge to solve. The soil experiment group had to learn what Mars soil is like and find a source that simulates it (which was a real challenge – with the help of their teacher, they finally found a source at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands). For building a game, Minecraft Mod, or role-playing simulation, some knowledge of Mars was necessary to make the scenario realistic; students had to do basic research. The 3D animation group had to learn the software and design the rocket, and this was challenging for them. Most of the teams did well at accepting the challenge of understanding Mars.

Shockproof team

Team that tested shockproof materials. It was somewhat related to Mars in that we will need such materials to handle the stresses of landing, but otherwise this project didn’t show a very deep understanding of conditions on Mars. It was a great project nonetheless.

For those students who didn’t dig in to the challenge quite as much, the results were mixed. The Mars history team did find basic exploration information, but some of the facts they presented on their poster were incorrect where only a small bit of double-checking would have corrected their errors. About half of the individual projects did not demonstrate a realistic knowledge of Mars. For example, as good as the wing cross-section project was, the student didn’t find out the basic fact that Mars’ atmosphere is very thin and won’t supply enough lift for the type of wing he designed. The Mars fashion team didn’t consider that Mars’ gravity is about 1/3 that of Earth, which makes quite a bit of difference in how clothing hangs and looks. Their project could have been about Earth fashion just as easily.

Our results on this point are mostly positive – the theme proved challenging for most students, enough that they had to dig for the content knowledge and skills they needed to complete their projects.

Inquiry steps diagram

A schematic diagram of the inquiry process

  1. Sustained Inquiry: I would define inquiry as asking questions and determining methods for finding answers. This can be done in any subject area, so inquiry can be done in history as easily as science as long as the sources are primary, such as interviews of actual people involved or developing questionnaires, etc. The soil growth team and the Mousetronaut team certainly did effective inquiry – they asked questions, decided on experimental procedures, gathered and analyzed data, and drew conclusions. The 3D sub-team that studied the aerodynamics of their rocket by 3D printing it and creating their own wind tunnel did a nice job at inquiry even if their data was collected through video analysis.

Ten reasons for using an inquiry-based learning approach.

The other teams were less effective. The history group did not use primary sources but only pulled up the standard Internet pages without finding out anything new about the history of Mars exploration. I would have been a good source for them, as I have met and interviewed many people who are directly involved and they could have analyzed the videos I’ve done, but they didn’t ask. I could have helped them set up direct interviews with Mars personnel, but again, they didn’t ask and were content with simply organizing the same old facts (which they got partially wrong). This is why their project didn’t take all the time they had – they didn’t go deep enough.

The Mars habitat groups did not conduct their planned inquiry beyond the engineering challenge of building their habitat. Because of problems with the team leaders using the habitat as a kind of clubhouse, it had to be shut down and the final experiments were not conducted; no one actually stayed in the habitat. The extent of their inquiry was an analysis of why they failed and what they learned from that, which is certainly useful. The Mars novel and drawings groups learned about writing and drawing, and did some good research on Mars conditions for their projects, so their projects were partially about inquiry but it wasn’t as sustained as some other projects. The Mars sports team did do research into various sports/games that would work on Mars, and that involved some inquiry as well. They tried out the sport to make corrections, which is engineering design.


Another model of the inquiry process

In summary, we probably hit about 50% on this attribute. If I were to do this again, I would build inquiry requirements more deliberately into the project proposal rubrics, so that students would pay more attention to the metacognitive aspects of their projects.

  1. Authenticity: This attribute means that the problem or question worked on is relevant and meaningful to students and their community. This was probably our weakest area; even though the students voted for the Mars theme, many of them had continuing questions about what the relevance of Mars exploration was to humanity. One seminar class focused on whether or not we should actually go to Mars, and after analyzing many of the factors (possibly not all), they came to the conclusion that we would better spend our money doing something else. As a theme, it was further removed (literally) from their everyday experiences and they had a hard time finding a personal interest in Mars. Even though the data they acquired was authentic, the topic was too far away to be meaningful.
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.

If I were to do this again, I would solicit more ideas from students at the very start of the process. As a faculty, we came up with a list before the semester started and narrowed it down to four to present to the students for a vote, without much input from the students. This was because it was a new school and the students hadn’t formed social connections yet. In future years, I would recommend that all ideas come from students first through in-class discussions, anonymous suggestion boxes, etc. and that a student group be set up to narrow the ideas down with minimal faculty input. That way, all the final ideas will be student-generated and we will increase the level of buy-in we get. If students ask why we’re working on a particular theme, we can say that it was their idea, not ours.

Video team leads

The leaders of our video team. They coordinated cameras, downloaded videos and photos, and made sure we had every team presentation covered. The photos you see on this blog wouldn’t have happened without them.

  1. Student Voice and Choice: We did well on this attribute, having students write up proposals and accepting all that were complete and on time. We got a nice cross section of completely different approaches to Mars exploration, from testing rockets to drawing colonies to writing novels to playing sports. We did discover one difficulty and that was how to apply one rubric to evaluate the effectiveness of these projects, when they were all so different. Some if it had to come from student self-evaluation of how much they learned from the process.

The biggest challenge was with students who did not choose to apply to be on a team or who did apply but were not selected. We asked them to do individual projects, which most did, but there were some who deliberately tried to get out of doing anything at all and even stayed home from school (or sluffed) on the presentation day. Of course, the project was counted as a class for credit and they received Fs for their lack of effort, but some students are not motivated by grades.

Smach group-4-28 evening

The Smash-Proof Material group presenting during our Evening Mars Event.

This remains the most difficult question for me about Project Based Learning: what do you do about the slackers who don’t care to do anything at all, or are willing to let others do all the work? We had about 20-25 students out of 220 that were in this group, or about 10% who didn’t care. Others were only nominally involved and required pink slips (getting fired from the group) or mentor intervention to keep doing their part. This under motivated group might have been as high as 25% of the students. Considering our school was billed as a Project Based Learning school, it seems odd to me that 10% of the students enrolling didn’t want to do projects and another 25% were only moderately involved. I suppose that enrollment in our school was forced on them by parents and didn’t come from internal motivation.

My suggestions for reducing these “free rider” students would be to do a better job at choosing a relevant, meaningful theme or question that is more authentic for the students and tied to their immediate lives. Those that don’t work or perform up to their potential will need to be judged accurately and the consequences made relevant (stay in detention after school until the project is done and presented, for example). We need to do a better job of recruiting students by being very open and honest about the project expectations. For our second year, many of the unmotivated students did not return, and many of the new students were much more excited about our PBL structure. This hopefully led to better project involvement and quality.


Reflecting on the learning process is an essential part of PBL

  1. Opportunity for Reflection: This implies building in a metacognitive aspect, where students evaluate the effect of the project on themselves and their own learning. This takes some training and needs to be built in from the start. This was our greatest failure. Once we had the final Mars day and evening, all the judging sheets were collected by our vice principal but then basically piled in a corner and forgotten.

This was because of two factors: First, we had our first year school accreditation visit during the week right after our final presentations, so the administration had to immediately switch gears and worry about that as soon as the project day was done. The judging sheets were therefore not tabulated or the results announced immediately, and so the students didn’t get the feedback they needed, nor did they have a requirement to reflect on how they did, what they learned, and how they contributed. This should have been built into the schedule and made a requirement of the project. My fault there.

Second, I got sick. I was coming down with a cold the day of the presentations, which was a Friday. I was so exhausted by taking on too much myself that I hadn’t been getting enough sleep or eating well. By the next week I had developed full-on bronchitis, one of the worst cases I’ve ever had. I had to take a day off and should have taken more, but the immediate need for all hands on deck for the accreditation forced me to be at school when I wasn’t feeling well enough to even stand up let alone try to talk. All I could do was croak, and it just got worse as the week progressed, not better. It took four weeks to get over the bronchitis, post-nasal drip, and coughing. I didn’t have the energy to follow up on the judging sheets other than asking an occasional question of the vice principal, who was much too busy to do anything about them.

After several weeks and the accreditation were over, she finally tabulated the results and we announced the winning teams. I wanted to go over the forms and provide more detailed feedback to each team, but the forms had been thrown out by accident. She thought we were done – I hadn’t communicated my desire to use the forms further. My fault again.

So in the end, we failed at providing the necessary feedback and time for reflection that are essential for student learning in PBL. We learned from our mistakes and built in a better system for our second year. I hope it worked.


Engineering design model

  1. Critique and Revision: Along the same lines as number five, we did try to build in a day about one month before the final deadline where student teams would have to provide a progress report, but when we got to that point only a few teams were ready. Those were the teams that did the best on the project, as their mentor teachers were providing continuing feedback and chances for revision. The teams that weren’t ready hadn’t been getting the feedback they needed to stay on track.

My suggestion here would be to set milestones/partial deadlines into the projects. I do this with my end-of-year STEAM Showcases. Students have to present to their peers, get feedback from them, make revisions, present again to elementary student classes, get feedback from the teachers, make final revisions, then present in the end to the public. We should have done the same with our Mars project. We would have caught any errors or lack of progress earlier on and teams would have had time for course corrections.

Carson-wind tunnel present

One of our student leaders presenting on his wind tunnel experiments. Some of the students did dress up well, but not all of them seemed to have gotten the memo.

  1. Publicly Presented Product: All the teams created a final product and presentation, but some more effectively. One difficulty was in training the teachers to use the same grading standards during the presentations; some were much more particular than others (or than I would have been). I didn’t develop the judging rubric – I was able to gratefully hand that off to another teacher. But I should have followed up with all the other teachers to make sure they understood how to use it. I was so busy just getting all the teams ready to present that I didn’t even think about training the judges. I could have handed this task off as well.

However, that being said, I thought the presentations went well. My video team recorded all the presentations, and from what I was able to see the students did an admirable job of presenting the basics of their projects. What we needed was some work training them on presentation skills, such as dressing up and not chewing gum and being on time for their appointments. One team got their wires crossed and didn’t show up on time. Others took the presentation too casually in how they dressed, talked, etc. For example, they would say things like, “Well, you know – uh, yeah.” They really didn’t have a clue how to be professional.

What we needed was to train the teams on presentation skills and overall excellence or quality. What does a quality project look like? What is the level of language, dress, and professionalism expected? I tried to train the team leaders in our weekly meetings, but toward the end the leaders were so concerned with the logistics of finishing that they didn’t think much about quality. Some were so busy they couldn’t attend the meetings. That needs to change, not just for our project but for most PBL I’ve seen, and that is something I will talk about in a future post: How do you teach quality?

Final Notes:

In final summary, for our first attempt at school-wide PBL, our students did well and our basic theme was good, though not great. We needed more student buy in from the start. Certainly there were needed improvements. We had the choice of proceeding with our initial project during our first year of operation or waiting until we had our act together and our feet on the ground. My argument was that we billed ourselves as a PBL school, and the students and parents were expecting us to make good on our promise. Even if we had a whole year to prepare, we would eventually have to just jump in and do it, so why not jump in now? We knew it wouldn’t be perfect and that we would learn by doing, and we were right: it wasn’t perfect, but we did learn a great deal.

Waiting for Trax

AAI students waiting for the TRAX red line train to visit Clark Planetarium.

For a final prize, we used the money we raised from the auction during our presentation night to fund a pizza party and to take the winning teams to Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City. We rode the Trax commuter rail system Red Line into the city, then switched to the Blue Line and got off right by the planetarium. We took a group photo in what had been the Mars room (but was now the Titan room) and the students enjoyed learning from the interactive exhibits, which have been recently upgraded. It was a nice way to cap off the whole project, and our way of showing appreciation to the teams for their hard work.

AAI students to planetarium

AAI students riding TRAX on our way to the Clark Planetarium.

Earlier in the semester, we had taken all the students to The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake for exhibits on flight and robots in science fiction. I got to hang out with Robbie, R2-D2, and Gort. That is the advantage of being a small school located near a Trax station – we can be fairly mobile when we want to be.

I would like to thank all the students who stepped up and lead teams and worked amazingly hard to create projects. They showed creativity, innovation, leadership, persistence, and excellence. They learned about different subject areas (writing, art, math, engineering, media design, construction) while they worked on these projects and did so because they were motivated and curious. Whatever the results, they will remember these projects, so the experience was worthwhile for them and for our school.

Walking to planetarium

AAI teachers and students walking to the Clark Planetarium. These were the winning teams for our Mars Exploration projects. The hard work of the teachers and students made our PBL experience an overall success.

I also thank the teachers who did so much to mentor their teams and encourage them, helping them find their way through the complexities of project management while also allowing them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.

What I Learned:

My own take away is that I need to trust the entire team of teachers to help out. I tried to do too much; this is because I’m used to being the only teacher doing project-based learning in my school and so I’ve had to do it all myself. With a whole school and an entire faculty to work with, I should have delegated jobs more and trusted other teachers to complete them. I couldn’t think of everything, and needed their help, but was reluctant to accept it. If there were failures in our project, they were mine. Where we succeeded was due to the incredible students who worked so hard and were so very creative. I can’t take any credit for that. Their enthusiasm and willingness to do hard things will make them great leaders and innovators. I look forward to seeing what they will become.

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 (http://elementsunearthed.com) will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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