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.

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The Big Mars Day: Presenting our Final Projects

Mars still-Marineris

Students at AAI chose Mars Exploration as a theme for our first annual school-wide project.

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.

Mousetronaut group-s

The Mousetronaut group with mentor teacher Bob Warren.

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.

Dave with Robbie-s

David Black with Robbie the Robot. As our Mars Day approached, I was getting a bit freaked out. “Monsters from the Id! Monsters from the Id!”

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.

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.

Finally, the day arrived and the teams were more or less prepared to present. Let me go over their results individually:

Mousetronaut Project:

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.

Moustronaut group-s

The Mousetronaut group preparing to launch their homemade 3-stage rocket with Major Tom the mouse on board.

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.

Major Tom pre-launch-2

Major Tom the Mousetronaut in his capsule preparing to launch. His parachute did not deploy correctly, but he survived the flight without physical harm. As for psychological harm, well – it certainly beats getting fed to a snake.

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.

Mousetronaut presentation-s

Leaders of the Mousetronaut group presenting at our Mars Day before judges.

3D Mars Lander Animation Project:

3D animation gruop

3D Mars Animation group at work. The PVC frame on the left is for holding an iPod to make stop-motion animations.

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.

3D animation group-Haley

Members of the 3D Mars Lander animation group working on their project.

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.

Rocket ship

3D rendering of the model rocket ship that Carson’s group printed and tested in a wind tunnel. The results were good.

Carson presenting

Carson presenting the results of his wind tunnel test of the Mars rocket.

Animation group animation

A still frame of the Mars 3D animation of a colony ship and lander on Mars.



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.

Mars Sport:

Sports group with goal-s

Mars Sport group posing in front of their goal. It has a large goal area at the bottom plus five smaller goal areas around the top for higher points.

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.

Sports group planning game-s

The Mars Sport group planning the game play and rules.

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.

Playing Mars game-s

Practicing the game in our school gym, but under Earth conditions. It would be fun to see it done under Mars gravity.

Mars Soil Project:

Red and blue light chamber-s

Mars soil plant growth chambers, set up to control temperature, humidity, and lighting. The blue chamber had Earth soil and light, the red chamber Mars soil simulant and lighting.

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.

Hayley collecting Mars soil data-s

Hayley measuring and recording plant growth data for the Mars soil project.

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 soil growth chambers-s

More Mars soil growth chambers. Different sets of chambers tested different variables such as temperature, humidity, lighting, and type of soil.


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:

Novella group-s

Storm and Amanda and their team working on the Mars novella, about a multi-generational colony on the Red Planet.

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.

Storm-Amanda present evening

Amanda and Storm presenting their novella project at our Mars evening event.

Mars colony drawing

Overall design of a Mars colony created by the Mars Illustration group.

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.

Mars drawings group-s

The Mars Illustration group working on their group and individual projects.

This group also helped to paint the Mars habitat.

Mars Habitat Project:

Habitat model-2

A model of the Mars Habitat created by our second habitat group. It was designed with an octagonal central pod with four branching pods, one for sleep, one for cooking/meals, one for bathroom, and one for an airlock.

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.

Jason and Mike building habitat-s

Jason and Mike building the habitat in the school parking lot.

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.

Jasper-Ryan build habitat-s

Students in the Habitat team helping to put the walls in place. This team was able to secure donations of lumber and worked well together on the building phase.

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.

Habitat under construction-2

The central octagonal pod while the Mars habitat was under construction.

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.

Moving roof to habitat-s

The Mars Habitat group lifting the frame for the central pod roof into place.

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.

Building habitat-2

The Mars Habitat team building the framework.

Individual Projects:

Individual projects

Students visiting the individual and small team projects in our gym on our Mars Day, April 28, 2017.

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.

Wing shape individ project

Judges viewing the Wing Shape individual project on our Mars Day.

Evening Event:

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.

Smach group-4-28 evening

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

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.

Mars clothing group-4-28

Mars Fashion project. This group called their Martian clothing design shop 687 Design, as that is the number of days it takes for Mars to orbit the sun.

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.

Mars Minecraft project

A Mars Minecraft mod with a colony incased in a force field to protect it and maintain atmosphere. About four individual students each developed their own versions of Mars-themed Minecraft environments based on actual Mars facts and data.

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.

Mars individ project-s

Small group presentations during our Mars Day event.

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.

Mars evening audience

We had a good turn out for our Mars evening event, even considering we charged admittance (to raise money). Here some of the attendees are in our library listening to a presentation. My video group filmed and photographed all the day’s activities.

Middle school smash group

The Smash-Proof Material group. They wrapped an old iPhone in the material and hit it with a hammer. It didn’t break! It could be used for building landers for Mars.


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Presenting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

An Exemplary Teacher

Mr Jacobsen gets award-s

J. Fay Jacobsen receiving an award for excellence in science education from the Northwest Regional Accreditation Association. I am the dorky one standing second from left. Talk about a bad 1970s hair style! These are all still good friends of mine and it’s been 40 years now.

I have been blessed by learning from some of the best teachers in Utah, both as a student and as a colleague. The best teacher of all was J. Fay Jacobsen, a science and math teacher at Delta High School. I had 8th grade math, chemistry, AP chemistry, and physics from Mr. Jacobsen, and his classes were memorable.

He not only taught me chemistry and physics, but he was a mentor and supported me in my first tentative steps at becoming a scientist. He encouraged me to apply for a National Science Foundation sponsored Summer Science Training Program in chemistry for high school students held at the University of Utah during the summer of 1977. It changed my life.

He supported my research and experimentation for a science fair project on methanol-air fuel cells, and personally took a day off of teaching to drive me to Cedar City, Utah for the regional science fair, where I took first place in the physical sciences division. When I traveled to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held in Anaheim, CA in May, he volunteered to take a week off and come with us as a chaperone.

Mr Jacobsen in old Delta HS lab-s

J. Fay Jacobsen, second from left in white lab coat. This photo was taken in the mid 1960s in the old Delta High School chemistry lab. This photo actually has two of my high school teachers in it. Third from the right is Waldo Warnick, my wood shop teacher. I believe this photo was taken to display the new chemistry lab stations which were later removed and installed in the new high school which I attended in the mid 1970s. Now that school has been torn down and an even newer one built. Photo copyright 2003 by the Beckwith family.

His personal sacrifices for me as an individual inspired me to become a science teacher myself, and I can only aspire to be a fraction of the teacher he was. I have made it a point to support my own students in their science research efforts, and I have traveled with them to present at professional science conferences hoping they will have a similar positive experience to the one Mr. Jacobsen gave to me.

So when I found that we would be exploring Mars for our first school-wide project at American Academy of Innovation and saw the quality and potential of the student proposals, I decided to give my students a chance to shine. I wrote a proposal to the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute to present a poster at their annual conference held in Houston in March. My proposal was accepted, so all we needed to do was create the poster and raise funds for the trip.

Fundraising was a challenge, and we weren’t able to gather enough funds to take as many students as I wanted. I flew to Houston with two students, Jason and Noah and Jason’s father Mike. My previous post describes how we arrived at the conference, set up our poster, and attended the NASA Town Hall Meeting led by Dr. Jim Green, now the Chief Scientist for NASA. In this post, I’ll describe the rest of our stay.

We were at the La Quinta just north of Bush International Airport and the conference was at The Woodlands conference center north of Houston. On our second day, we drove to the conference and spent most of the morning attending concurrent sessions on Mars exploration. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to attend a scientific conference, let me describe how it works:

Communicating Results in Science

Explaining poster

Noah and Jason explaining our poster at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March 2017.

As science teachers, we train our students on the steps of “the” scientific method. It is a nice linear sequence of steps that, if followed, the student will not go astray in their experiments. Unfortunately, no practicing scientist actually follows this process the way we outline it in our classes. Real science is much more organic and iterative. It boils down to asking questions about the world and figuring out ways to find answers. Scientists are curious about how the universe works, find questions that interest them, research what others have done, design ways to test their questions in order to get some definitive answers, and share what they’ve learned at conferences and in peer reviewed journals. Usually, the answers they find lead to new questions and the process cycles onward, spiraling down to a deeper understanding of nature.

Poster session crowds

A poster session at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Communicating results is essential to the process of science, so that more questions and further research can be done. A science conference is a bit like organized chaos to the uninitiated. But it boils down to three main ways of sharing the results of one’s experiments. The first is through posters presented in a large spacious hall (with hard concrete floors) and ranks of room dividers. Posters are organized by topic. In the case of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, there were posters on Mars exploration, the moons of Jupiter, the Sun, our Moon, education efforts, etc. Our poster was in the education section, which was relegated to the very back of the poster hall. There were booths by sponsors such as the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) complete with moon rocks, NASA, the PDS Geosciences Node, etc. At some conferences there are booths for university graduate programs hoping to attract candidates.

Noah explains to Christine Shupla

Noah explains our poster to Christine Shupla of the Lunar and Planetary Institute. I’ve worked with her before on a 3D animation of the Moon my students created.

Posters are for scientists or prospective scientists (graduate students) to present preliminary results and get feedback from interested people in an informal setting. It’s kind of like putting your idea up a flagpole to see who salutes. If your research results are a bit more firm and certain, then you might apply to make a presentation with slide show as part of a concurrent session. The Mars sessions we attended were of this sort. You are given five minutes to explain your years of dedicated research and make a case for your conclusions and theories, then have two minutes to answer any questions before the next person hooks up their computer and starts to talk.

David Black with poster

David Black posing with our poster at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

These sessions last two hours with 10-12 presenters each, and can be quite intense. An outsider would think that the audiences are universally hostile, as they will ask penetrating and sometimes even scathing questions. Of course, I’ve been to conferences where the audience really is hostile – then the fireworks fly! But most audiences are asking hard questions as a favor – to help you be more certain of your research results and point out any flaws in your data or reasoning before you try to publish a paper in a peer reviewed journal. Having a paper rejected can ruin one’s career. Presenting in this way is not for the timid or the novice, so it is a good idea to attend conferences as an undergraduate or graduate student before ever attempting to present at one.

Students with moon rocks

Jason and Noah with Moon rocks at the Lunar and Planetary Institute booth at the conference.

A final way of sharing information at a scientific conference is through invited plenary sessions. These are presentations that everyone is expected to attend, with no other activities scheduled for these times, often between the concurrent sessions. These can be like the NASA Town Hall meetings at the end of the day, or they can be well-respected scientists invited to share their research.

Mars Concurrent Sessions

The Mars sessions were divided by topic, such as Mars’ atmosphere (and the results of the MAVEN mission), Mars’ geology (the results of landers and orbiters such as Curiosity or Mars Reconnaissance), the search for life on Mars (including using Earth analogs), etc.

Curiosity path

Poster showing the Curiosity rover’s path across Gale Crater on Mars. There were several concurrent sessions on the results so far of the Curiosity mission,

With my students Jason and Noah there, I didn’t stay for the whole session as I normally would have. Although fascinating for me (I took many notes), quite a bit of the discussion was beyond their experience although they did make a valiant effort to stay with it. We continued there for about an hour and a half so that they could get a good taste of the types of presentations given and how these sessions work, with me giving a running commentary on why these studies were noteworthy. When I saw their eyes beginning to glaze over, we left and headed to lunch at a hamburger place around the corner from the convention center.

A real Ferrari

A real Ferrari! Well, I can dream, can’t i?

We stopped at a Ferrari dealership a few doors down and posed by our favorite cars, then headed back to the convention center to listen to more sessions and look through the posters in more detail. Our poster session was from 6:00 to 8:00 that evening, so we went to an early dinner at a seafood place that served Cajun crawdads and other southern delights. This was the first time Jason or Noah had tried crawdads, and it was fun to see them try to shell the lobster-like creatures. I’ve had the experience once before in Gulfport, Mississippi when I attended a planning conference at Stennis Space Center. The casino-hotel we stayed at had a crawdad broil in the courtyard, and it was unforgettable and delicious.

Cajun crawdads

Noah and Jason eating Cajun crawdads. You’ve gotta try them at least once.

We returned to the convention center by 5:30 to prepare for our presentation. I wanted the students to be the ones presenting, so I had them practice answering questions and at 6:00 I backed off and let them go for it. Noah and Jason did an outstanding job of presenting to anyone who passed by what our Mars projects were about and what project-based learning (PBL) is. Being at the back of the hall meant we didn’t have quite the crowds of people as the posters toward the front, but we did have a steady stream. I knew quite a few of the people with posters around us from previous conferences I’ve been to, such as Sheri Klug-Boonstra, Christine Shupla, Paige Valderamma, and others. There was one other high school group presenting on their afterschool club and observations of asteroids. Our poster was well received, but most importantly, the students learned what it’s like to present at a real science conference.

At the end of the session we took down our poster and rolled it up so that the next group of posters could be hung up. There would be another poster session on Thursday night.

Galveston Bay

My original plan was to take the students to Johnson Space Center on Wednesday morning, but they have changed up how the center runs and built a museum/visitors center that is no longer free. We weren’t able to get tickets at a price we could afford, since we were there on a shoestring budget. So we decided to travel out to Galveston Bay to the beach for the morning.

Buoy and boat

A buoy, a cargo boat, and a pier in Galveston Bay at Sylvan Beach near La Porte.

We drove south on the 45 toward Houston, then curved east on the 670 around the beltway and on to Galveston Bay on the 225 to La Porte. There we found a nice beach (Sylvan Beach Park) with a fishing pier projecting out into the bay right next to La Porte High School (nice to have a beach in the back yard of your school). We changed into our swim trunks and enjoyed the day. Even though it was still March, the weather was warm and the water only a bit on the cool side, so very pleasant. I took photos of the pier and videos of the cargo ships entering and leaving the bay toward the Port of Houston.

Pier at Sylvan Beach

The fishing pier at Sylvan Bean on Galveston Bay, Texas.

After lunch we headed back to The Woodlands and the conference. We attended further sessions and looked at the new posters, including several huge photo posters of the proposed landing sites for the 2020 Mars rover. We then explored the shopping mall across the street and found a place for supper. The conference had arranged for a free showing of Hidden Figures for attendees at the mall’s theater, so we walked around the mall and waited for the show to begin.

Mars Site Selection

Matt Golombek

Dr. Matt Golombek, currently head of the committee that choses landing sites for Mars space probes at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While waiting in line, a man I recognized walked up and joined us at the end of the line. It was Matt Golombek, who is in charge of the committee to decide landing sites for Mars probes. I had met him at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2002 during the NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics and Science Teachers (NEWMAST) program. I had helped set up the workshop schedule, and I asked if Dr. Golombek could come and speak to the teachers, and he graciously agreed to do so. At that time he had become well known as the geologist on the Mars Pathfinder mission, and now he was trying to work out landing sites for three probes: the Insight Mission to launch in 2018, the 2020 Mars Rover, and the ESA Mars probe.

NE Syrtis

Orbital photo and 3D landscapes of the proposed Northeast Syrtis Major landing site on Mars. It is a heavily eroded area of mesas and dunes which are of the right age for when Mars could have had life. Many sedimentary layers are exposed here.

I mentioned that he was having a busy year, and he told me some of the challenges the committee was having in finding sites that had the best combination of features, narrowed down from a list of hundreds of candidates. For the Mars 2020 rover, they have decided on three possible sites: Jezero Crater (my personal favorite) northwest of Isidis Planitia, northern Sirtis Major (another good site), and a return to the Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater to investigate the probable deep sea vents discovered by the Spirit rover. Its purpose will be to look for signs of life, not just if life could have been possible (like Curiosity), but actual signs of past or present life. Picking the right spot requires a safe landing ellipse without too many rocks or craters or much of a slope but near an area where life could have existed. Not an easy task!

Jezero site

3D landscape and orbital photo of the Jezero Crater proposed landing site on Mars. It has several large delta deposits with both input and output channels. This one has my vote.

I introduced Dr. Golombek to my students and Mike then we entered the theater and took our seats. The movie was good, and even better seeing it with scientists and NASA personnel. They got a good laugh out of seeing the book that described FORTRAN as easy to learn. I can tell you from personal experience that it isn’t.

We gassed up the rental SUV on the way back to the hotel. We slept well, then got the boys up and ready and packed and headed back to the airport. Since we were only a few miles away, it didn’t take long to return the SUV and take the shuttle to the main airport. We had over an hour to wait for our flight, so I explored the airport. They have interesting sculpture pieces that I took some photos of to show to my STEAM it Up class. The airport was quiet. I tried to read a book while waiting.

Bunny sculpture and tower

Control tower and bunny sculpture at the Bush International Airport.

On our way home we had a connection through Dallas and took the tramway around to our departure gate and got some supper. This airport was much more busy. We boarded our flight and arrived home in Salt Lake City as scheduled. I saw Jason and Noah off with their parents and picked up my baggage. My wife and kids picked me up, and our excursion to Houston was at an end.


I don’t know if Jason or Noah will ever become planetary scientists. My taking them to Houston was not about them someday working for NASA, although I won’t rule that out. It was about exposing them to a level of discourse and professional excitement that they might never see otherwise and to find the excellence in themselves to stand up and present their ideas. They came through marvelously, and I am very proud of their performance. If I can find a way to give other students this opportunity, I will. Even though I did this at personal expense and without the support of my school, it was worthwhile.

AAI in the sand

Noah and Jason writing AAI (for American Academy of Innovation) in the sand at Sylvan Beach near La Porte, Texas.

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A Poster at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

Jim Green with Noah-Jason

Dr. Jim Green, NASA Chief Scientist, with students from American Academy of Innovation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, March 2017.

As our school-wide Mars Exploration project got underway at American Academy of Innovation, I wanted to give the team leaders an opportunity to share what they were doing with a larger audience and meet the people who are actually planning the human exploration of Mars. I wrote a proposal for a poster in the education division of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) held near Houston each March.


David Black sitting in the flight director’s chair in the old green Apollo control room at Johnson Space Center during my 2004 trip to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

In 2004 I had the opportunity to attend the LPSC and present what we were doing in my classes on using the Mars MOLA 3D altitude data. This was at a pre-conference workshop on how to get NASA data into the hands of students. Since I was actually doing it, I was invited to come present. This was through contacts that I had at JPL; one of the organizing people for the workshop was Art Hammon whom I had worked with in the NASA Explorer Schools program; I had the workshop participants use MOLA data so Art knew of my expertise. I attended the reception at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, which houses the Lunar Receiving Lab where all the moon rock samples are kept (the first meeting was held there in 1969), and I attended sessions the following day such as the initial report on the results of the Stardust mission flyby of comet Wild-2. This session was fun because they handed out 3D red-blue glasses and all the scientists were wearing them, so I took a quick shot of the audience – the absolute essence of science nerds wearing 3D glasses. I only had the one day to attend the conference, as I needed to spend the next day working with Ota Lutz to plan our JPL workshop. Ota was also kind enough to take me on a VIP tour of Johnson Space Center, including the neutral buoyancy pool and the old Apollo control room.

Jason and MIke at airport

Jason and his father Mike waiting at the airport to board our plane to Houston.

From that experience, I knew that it was possible for a high school teacher to attend and even present at the conference. So why not high school students? In my proposal, I described the project-based learning (PBL) ideas we were incorporating into our Mars project. In a few weeks, I heard back that the poster was accepted. The next steps were to figure out how to get students there and to make the actual poster.

Fundraising turned out to be problematic. The student leaders were willing to go out and knock on doors, but certain people in the school wanted to make sure we did the fundraising correctly so as to build bridges to organizations for continuing support, not just loosing students on the community. I can understand the need for proper public relations and doing things the right way, but I had an immediate need and it felt like my hands were being tied. I was used to having more freedom on how I ran projects. In the end, we did not raise any money from the community because we spent too much time discussing how we should raise money instead of actually raising it. I tried contacting sponsors myself such as Orbital ATK, but we were a new school in our first year of operation and hadn’t established a track record of success that would attract sponsors or grants.

Dav-Noah-Jason with poster

David, Noah, and Jason in front of their poster for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston in March 2017.

In the meantime I created a poster explaining the characteristics of gold-standard PBL (see the Buck Institute for Education’s website for more on this at: http://www.bie.org ). I added photos from my Mars video group and described the 13 projects, our progress, and what we had learned about PBL so far. I laid it all out in a large format Powerpoint slide, then had it printed and laminated at Kinko’s.

In the end, two students and one parent were able to use their own money to come to Houston with me. I had to completely self-finance my trip as well. By this time, the school was having financial difficulty and could not provide any help for our trip, even if it meant great PR for the school.

I arranged for the tickets, hotel, conference registration (we got a discount on this), and rental car just a few days before the conference and got the students prepared. Jason was the leader of the Mars Habitat group, and Noah was the leader of the Moustronaut group. Mike, Jason’s father, also agreed to come with us. We met at the Salt Lake airport on the opening Monday of the conference (we didn’t want to fly on Sunday and could only afford two nights in the hotel). I hand carried the poster onto the airplane in a large bag. We had a layover in Phoenix, and saw a group of university students with a poster laid out and found they were on their way to Houston as well, so we had a nice discussion waiting to board.


Jim Green, now Chief Scientist for NASA. My students and I talked with Dr. Green before the NASA Town Hall Meeting.

After landing at Bush International Airport we found our shuttle to the car rental area, got our SUV rental, and drove north to the La Quinta near the airport to drop off our bags and check into our rooms. We had to post our poster so that people could read it before the first evening poster session on Tuesday, so we drove north of Houston to the Woodland Hills Convention Center. We had some trouble finding it as we went to the wrong conference center. The Google Maps app that Mike had on his phone confused the two and I had left the address back at the hotel. We finally found it, parked at the mall lot across the street, and went in to the registration desk where we picked up our badges. We took the long escalator downstairs to the main floor and found the area for our poster, clear in the back of the hall in the education section. The dividers were already numbered, so it was easy to find our spot and pin up our poster. Looking at the program online before we came down I was excited to find out that several of the posters next to ours would be by people I knew: Christine Shupla, Sheri Klug-Boonstra, Paige Valderama and others. There would be at least one other high school with a poster.

We took some photos and wandered around for a while looking at the other posters and booths. Almost nobody was there because they were all in Monday’s sessions, and it was too late in the day for us to go to any. We would be doing this on Tuesday and maybe Wednesday. Our first order of business was to attend the NASA Town Hall Meeting in the main conference area, which started at 5:00. We walked in early and found some seats up front.

Noah-Jason at NASA town mtg

At the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston waiting for the NASA Town Hall Meeting to start.

It was about a half hour before the meeting started, which would be led by Jim Green, head of Planetary Sciences for NASA (and as of this writing now the Chief Scientist for NASA). He was up at the front getting things ready and I pointed him out to Jason and Noah. Noah asked if we could meet him, and I said he was probably too busy getting the meeting ready, but Noah persisted – he just wanted to shake hands and have a quick photo opp. I remembered how kind John Grunsfeld had been to the NITARP students at the AAS meeting back in 2015, and how Paul Hertz had spoken to me, a lowly high school teacher, as if I were an equal. So I thought “What the heck!” and gave in. We boldly walked up to the front and I introduced myself and my students to Jim Green. He was not only excited to meet some high school students at the conference, but took five minutes to talk with us about the amazing opportunities there were in planetary science as a career. And we did get our photo opp!

Jim Green talking with AAI studs

Dr. Jim Green, NASA Chief Scientist, discussing aerospace careers with m students Noah and Jason.

As I have said before in this blog, almost all the NASA personnel that I have met in my travels are delighted to talk about their work, as they are excited to do what they do and want to share. They all recognize that NASA depends on getting the next generation excited about space exploration, and will jump at the opportunity to discuss aerospace careers with students. This was the main reason why I wanted to bring students along, so that they could meet real scientists on the cutting edge of discovery and hear the excitement in their voices as they push the boundaries of knowledge. We had been at the conference for less than an hour and our expedition was already paying off. I hope they never forget this moment. I know I never will.

Jim Green presenting budget

Dr. Jim Green presents highlights of the NASA Fiscal Year 2018 budget related to planetary science. Notice approval of the Mars 2020 Rover and the Europa Clipper, as well as definite wording related to a human mission to Mars (using the Orion capsule).

The town meeting was interesting. I have attended several of these now, between the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conferences in 2014 and 2015 and my previous visit to Houston in 2004. At AAS, Paul Hertz discusses upcoming astrophysics missions and research opportunities. At this session, Jim Green and a panel of people discussed upcoming planetary science missions and the decadal survey. In the new Trump presidency, NASA’s budget has been rearranged in unexpected ways. Overall funds were a bit higher, but funds for Earth Science missions had been drastically cut to the dismay of many in the audience. The feeling in the room was that since Pres. Trump doesn’t believe in climate change that these missions that might prove him wrong were being deliberately axed. Of course, the President’s budget has to be approved and can be modified by Congress, but as a federal agency, NASA has to support the White House’s directives.

There are also changes regarding the direction of exploration. Instead of using the Orion and Space Launch System to travel to a small asteroid to bring back samples, Trump wants to take us back to the Moon as a practice for going on to Mars. One of the proposals is to build an inflatable habitat in cis-lunar space in order to practice living in a Mars habitat (Jason got excited about that, since he had become an expert on space habitats from our animation project that he narrated). This moon-orbiting habitat could then be a platform from which we can return to the lunar surface as a practice for landing on Mars.

Ben Bussey Portrait

Dr. Ben Bussey, who spoke at the NASA Town Hall Meeting about a planned inflatable habitat in cis-Lunar space.

The scientist over this project, Dr. Ben Bussey, was one of the panelists and described what NASA is thinking and how it would work. Noah and Jason wanted to meet him, too, so after the meeting was over we went up and Dr. Bussey talked with us for about 15 minutes. He was excited to hear what we were doing with our Mars project and the Mars habitat animation.

Panel discussion-Bussey

A panel discussion about space exploration plans. Jim Green is in the middle, Ben Bussey on the right.

It had already been a great first day. This trip might be costing me my own money, but this is the kind of thing I became a teacher for. I consider myself fortunate to have met some of the best scientists in the world and to be a witness to humanity’s greatest adventure, the exploration of the universe.

We were starving and stopped at a Sonic drive-in on the way back to our hotel.

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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.

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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

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Traveling to Mars

Ship entering orbit-m

Ares Voyager entering orbit around Mars. The Orion Capsule (with blue solar panels) docks with the habitat (white cylinder). The landing craft is on the left.

I taught STEAM (physical sciences, technology, engineering, digital and traditional arts, and mathematics) classes at American Academy of Innovation in South Jordan, Utah during the 2016-17 school year (which was the first year of operation). The charter and mission of the school is to ignite a passion for learning in students through project-based learning (PBL). I have done many projects in my own classrooms (as you can see from reading my blog posts), but this is the first time I was at a school that has a school-wide PBL emphasis.

Initial sketch

Original student concept sketch for the Mars mission space habitat.

At the start of the school year, as we learned more about what PBL involves, we talked as a faculty on what sorts of projects we would want to implement. We thought, as a new school, we should start gradually and train the students on how to learn through projects. We also knew we would need to implement at least one school-wide project this first year to “get our feet wet” so to speak and have a foundation on which to build for future years.

Top view-ship-s

Top view of the Ares Voyager spaceship assembly. The Orion capsule (with blue solar panels) is docked with the Docking Module. The main inflatable habitat is the white cylinder, with fuel, air, and water tanks in gold. The VASIMR drive is on the left. The pieces were modeled by my students, and I assembled, textured, and animated them.

We identified four possible subjects for our project, and at the start of our second term we put the four ideas to a student vote. One of the important aspects of project-based learning is that students should have a voice and choices in the projects they work on and how they approach those projects. Of the four ideas, the one that received the highest votes by far was the theme of Mars exploration.


Now I swear I didn’t influence the vote. I kept the language neutral for the descriptions we sent to the students. I do have to admit that I might have “sweetened the well” by using the example of Mars exploration as a possible project in the open house meetings we had during the summer. But of course, given my background, I was excited that this would be our first overall project.

Hab video title

AAI Mars space habitat video title frame

The next step was to get the students up to speed on Mars and its exploration history. We modified our schedule, shortening Friday classes from one hour to 45 minutes to fit in an extra Mars period. The teachers designed a series of seminars to last for four weeks at the end of the semester, and students signed up for which ones they wanted to attend. I’ll talk about these seminars in more detail in my next post.

Jason narrating

Jason narrating the video in front of a green screen, with an image of Mars added behind him. This is of a river channel running north from Argyre Planitia.

Knowing that there were no guarantees that we would be successful, I wanted to “hedge our bets” a bit by creating some small-scale projects in my classes first semester that could be used as examples for the second semester groups. My 7-8 grade astronomy students decided to participate in a contest for a 2-minute video describing a space habitat that astronauts could live in as they travel from Earth to Mars. This contest was sponsored by Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion capsule and the habitat it will dock with.

Ryan narrates Orion launch

Ryan narrating the Orion launch and docking animation sequence.

We started by planning out what the habitat would look like. Students divided up into teams, and the designers sketched the spaceship parts and the habitat inside and out. Each team had a different part or system of the ship, such as the VASIMR drive; the fuel, air, and water tanks; the recycling system; the main habitat; the docking modules; the Orion capsule; and the Mars lander. As these teams were researching what these parts might look like and finalizing their designs, I taught the basics of 3D modeling in Daz3D Bryce to our modeling group. Meanwhile, the writers were gathering information from the research and design teams and creating a final script. One student created a 3D space scene to place the spaceship in, including an Earth, nebulas, stars, and Mars.

Jezero and Hargrave-labels

Jezero Crater, one of the three finalists for the Mars 2020 rover landing site.

The student-built pieces of the spaceship were saved in separate files, then merged together and textures added. We decided to name the spaceship/habitat the Ares Voyager. Because of the time involved, I took the final 3D file and created a series of animations and rendered them out. The first showed the Orion capsule orbiting Earth. The second showed it moving to a higher orbit and docking with the Mars spaceship. The third showed the spaceship with Orion firing up its main engines and leaving Earth orbit. The fourth showed it spinning around to fire its engines as retrorockets to slow down into Mars orbit.

Jezero Crater-labels

Jezero Crater closeup with features labeled. This image was rendered using Mar MOLA data from the Mars Global Surveyor probe.

While I was rendering out these animations at home, the scriptwriters finished their scripts and two students, Ryan and Jason, became our narrators. We rigged up a green screen and lit it carefully. Ryan and Jason recorded our script, with several takes for each paragraph. We also began the process of video editing. That was as far as we had time for first semester, and we didn’t get far enough to enter the video into the contest, but that’s OK. The point was to collaborate on a great project and learn about Mars exploration in advance of the main project.

Orbits diagram

Planet orbit diagram. I did the orbits to scale, with correct orbital periods.

Over the following two months I continued to work on this project, creating some additional animations showing the orbits and how a space mission would launch for Mars, stay there for about 18 months, and then return. The orbits dictate that the mission would be 30 months long.


Now I have completed the editing process and have posted the final video on my YouTube channel at:


It is a bit longer than the original target of two minutes, and has a few glitches that still need ironing out, but I hope you enjoy it. Considering the students knew nothing about 3D modeling and very little about Mars missions or orbits, they did a fantastic job.

Path to Mars-green dot

Ryan narrating the spaceship’s path, shown as the green arc and dot. Here the ship leaves Earth, slows down, and moves out to Mars’ orbit. Earth overtakes and moves ahead of the ship. The halfway point occurs during inferior conjunction, or oppostion, when the Sun, Earth, and Mars are aligned. The entire journey takes 6-8 months using conventional rockets, shorter for a VASIMR drive.

To learn about the orbits, I also had the students do a human orrery activity where I laid out ropes into circles that were the right proportional diameters, marked off with tape to represent every two weeks of a planet’s orbit. I first saw this activity at a workshop at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2015 for my MAVEN Educator Ambassador program. I’ll write about this in a future post. Once they were lined up, I called out two weeks at a time and had them move forward around the rope circles. It soon became obvious that Mercury is the fastest planet and Mars lagged far behind.

Whole ship w labels-s

A render of the entire ship with labels. The ship would go into orbit around Mars and the astronauts would take the landing craft (right) down to the surface.

Then I demonstrated how a space probe or human mission would have to travel. It must launch when Earth is overtaking Mars in order to minimize the time in transit when the astronauts are most vulnerable to solar flares and radiation. This occurs about three months before inferior conjunction. The astronauts will travel 6-8 months to get to Mars. The spaceship must overtake Mars from behind and reach a point in space where Mars will be at the right time to intersect it. Then the astronauts must wait at Mars until Earth overtakes Mars again before they can start the 6-8 month journey back. If we can develop a faster method of getting to Mars instead of traditional chemical rockets (such as a hydrogen plasma-based VASIMR drive), we could get to Mars in three months, stay a month, and return without having to wait for the planets to align again, perhaps 7-8 months total instead of 30 months with chemical rockets.

Path to Mars

Our video playing on YouTube. Just search for “David Black mars habitat” in the YouTube search engine.

I videotaped the exercise, knowing I would need it for my plan to create a video documentary of the whole Mars project. There were more activities we did in my classes first semester, such as building a Mars colony sculpture out of junk, which I have already written about.

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Arrakeen Colony, Mars


Arrakeen City-all

A view of Arrakeen Colony, a model we made of a possible city on Mars.

During our fall 2016 semester at American Academy of Innovation, we selected Mars Exploration as the theme of our first school-wide project. To prepare my classes and get students excited, I involved them in creating several projects related to Mars.

Mars colony sketch

Initial sketch for our Mars colony sculpture. We designed it based on an old autoclave that was donated to my school, supported by metal pipes and glass beams (made from microscope slide disinfecting bottles). The first level is for manufacturing, the second is residential housing, the third is administration offices and commercial buildings, the fourth is for the university, mayor’s mansion, and a park. The upper dome houses landing pads, a communication dish, etc.

I teach a unique course that I call STEAM it Up, where students create projects that integrate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. I’ve reported on these projects in my other blog site (http://elementsunearthed.com), and they include designing inquiry chemistry experiments to study the variables of dyeing cloth, making marbled paper to study fractal math patterns, and building steampunk costumes. To bring in the Mars theme, we decided to build a sculpture of a possible Mars colony out of junk and repurposed items.

Constructing the city

My STEAM it Up students constructing the base of the city.

A few years ago, someone donated pieces of medical equipment to my previous school that came from some doctor’s office. I wasn’t there when the donation came in, or I would have turned much of it down as we had no use for many of the items. After all, what was I going to do with a broken down avocado green 1970s vintage water still? But some of the items were interesting from a junk sculpture point of view, including a plastic autoclave with four levels used for sterilizing surgical equipment. I thought at the time that it looked like a futuristic city. We decided to start with that as the basis of our colony – a multilevel domed city on Mars. The plastic grids of the autoclave would be the floors or levels of the city, held up by central columns made from microscope slide disinfecting bottles (old style, made from glass) that were also donated. We sketched it out on my whiteboard and decided what the different levels would be for.

Main levels constructed

The four main levels after construction. The levels were offset to allow more light to penetrate through the levels. On Mars, each level would be enclosed in a clear dome.

My first semester STEAM it Up students began construction and put together the main levels and built some smaller pieces of equipment out of my extensive collection of old motor and electronics parts. These would be factories and manufacturing plants for the colony. A student used old Macintosh charging cord adapters that had fallen apart (they tend to do this) and strips of ruffled foil from a princess party tiara to make Mars rovers. A student created the upper dome from the autoclave lid, adding landing pads for shuttles, an observatory, a defensive laser turret, and a communications dish. Another student built a base for the city. As first semester ended, I added some single family housing units on the second level made from Trulicity injection caps and the rubber feet that were taken off of my lab stools. I created the final pillars for the fourth floor and attached the dome to the top.

Adding upper pillars

During winter break, I added residential housing units to the second level and created pillars to support the upper dome.

Now you might wonder what this has to do with STEM (the art part is obvious). This was really an exercise in engineering and materials science. The students had to work out how to attach all of these different materials from many sources together so that they wouldn’t fall apart, have strength in the load bearing members, and be aesthetically pleasing and symmetrical so that it wouldn’t tip over. We wanted it to look like a deliberate piece of graceful engineering and architecture – seemingly delicate but actually sturdy and stable. And we had to figure out how to fit it all together with rods, brackets, bolts, wire, and glue. We tried several types of adhesives and finally selected E-6000, which takes about 20 minutes to set up but dries clear and hard and attaches many types of materials together. Time will tell if it holds up to UV light or turns yellow like some adhesives that I’ve tried.

Paper mache

Baseboards with paper maché added. The large based used traditional newspaper strips soaked in flour-water paste, the other two used commercial paper pulp. We designed it to look like a realistic site on Mars with craters that have been partially removed for construction.

As the first semester ended, I proposed several names for our colony based on ancient words for “Mars” and “city.” These included:

Huo Hsing Shr (Chinese)
Kasei Shi (Japanese)
Shalbatana Alu (Akkadian)
Simudopolis (Sumerian/Greek)
Mangalakha (Sanskrit) – this was my favorite
Tiuburg (Teutonic)
Ma’adim Salem (Hebrew)
Hrad K’aghak’(Armenian)
Harmakhis Delphi (Eqyptian/Greek)
Al-Qahira Madina (Arabic)
Marte Cuidad (Spanish)
Mawrth Dinas (Welsh)
Nirgal Alu (Babylonian)
Labouville (French)
Aresdelphia (Greek)

Painting the bases

STEAM it Up students painting the dried baseboards using tempura paint.

Many of the river channels on Mars bear these names, such as Shalbatana Vallis and Mawrth Vallis. The students liked several of these, but one student proposed that we name it Arrakeen after the capital city in Frank Herbert’s desert world Arrakis from the classic science fiction novel Dune. This is the name we chose. Our city is now Arrakeen Colony.

Painted baseboards

The completed baseboards, painted to look like the surface of Mars.

When second semester came, my new group of STEAM it Up students continued to work on the model. They built more equipment, ranging from construction sites to bulldozers, steamrollers, communication equipment, air processing plants, hospitals, etc. Many of the parts move or spin, such as the rotating communications center or the construction crane arm. They built several ground-to-orbit shuttles and cargo carriers, factories, and other parts. We found a 3D model of an astronaut online and printed out a bunch of them as small as we could manage (although they are still about twice as big as our city scale would dictate). Several students brought in HO scale plant materials – plastic grass, trees, bushes, etc – and used Pyrex jars, glass bottles, and plastic domes to build a series of greenhouses. They’ve also started to glue plastic strips under the top level in order to add trees for a park and fountain.

Arrakeen-other side

Arrakeen City near completion.

The biggest job was preparing the bases for all this. I purchased some paper maché fiber at a craft store and we used it to build up Mars terrains on two baseboards. We used traditional paper maché made from strips of torn newspaper soaked in a flour-water solution to build up a terrain on the larger base for the city. These took several days to dry. We then used orange, brown, and tan tempura to paint the bases to look like Mars soil. The end result was quite good, although the traditional newspaper strips cracked in places.

Construction site-2

Construction site on Mars. The large building under construction (left) is for manufacturing solar panels, a critical limiting factor for expanding the colony. Notice the construction crane with moving arm. A bulldozer is pushing up dirt into a ridge, with a steamroller flattening the dirt behind. At the lower right, a nuclear power plant and charging station is used to recharge the equipment batteries, aided by two small solar panels. A fork lift is parked nearby awaiting recharge. Astronauts in spacesuits are working at the site. Nearer the city stands the main communication link with Earth and a rotation communication and radar installation. Two small rovers are attached by access tubes to the city.

With the bases complete, we glued the factories, greenhouses, astronauts, and equipment in place and mounted the entire city onto the large base. The end result is better than I had envisioned. There is a great deal of interesting detail, and the total effect looks quite good.


Greenhouses and Air Circulation Center: On the other side of the city from the construction site stand a series of greenhouses to recirculate air and add oxygen. Most oxygen is produced by cracking atmospheric carbon dioxide in the processing plant next to the main greenhouse. Initial power for the city is supplied by the nuclear power plant in the upper left. At lower left is the heating plant and main circulation pumping station for the greenhouses.

There are still things to complete over the final few weeks of the semester. We need to finish the park on the top level and add the mayor’s mansion and the university. The third level has a hospital but we still need to create administrative offices, a school, and other buildings. The second level has ten housing units and pumping facilities but needs more. The bottom level needs a few more small manufacturing plants. And we need to add greenery and plants wherever we don’t have buildings, as a Mars colony would need as many plants as possible. We got some glue on the outside of the dome the other day and tried to clean it off with acetone, but that only started dissolving the dome’s plastic. We’ve covered that up with a solar panel made from a metal grid and some sparkly blue paper cut from an old folder I had. We have several such solar panels elsewhere in the model. Lastly, when all is in place, we’ll need to touch up the paint in places and add smaller details.

Roof with shuttles

Upper dome with landing pads. The shuttle models are attached with magnetic buttons. Notice the communications dish, the defensive laser turret, and the observatory dome and telescope.

I’m working on a virtual 3D model of the city with a moderate amount of detail in Daz3D Bryce, using pieces created in Blender and Carrara. Below left is a rendering of what it looks like so far.

Arrakeen 3D-partial

A 3D version of the city, partially complete. The levels would be enclosed in domes to protect the atmosphere inside.

In four weeks we’ll hold our STEAM Showcase at AAI. I want to put the finished colony on display, along with posters describing its construction and what all the parts are for. In the process of building this and imagining what a colony on Mars would really need, the students have learned a great deal about how our future might actually happen; how we may someday plan and build a city on Mars.

Residential Level

Residential and Manufacturing Levels of Arrakeen City.

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Using Mars MOLA 3D Data

Data video title

The title for my Mars 3D Data video.

Fourteen years ago I was on a quest. I knew that 3D altitude data of Mars was available online because I had seen it used in illustrations for National Geographic and other magazines. I wanted to figure out how to find the data and use it in my own 3D modeling software. This wound up being more complicated than I had anticipated and took several months of gradual tinkering, lots of e-mails, and some help from people who were doing it. Finally, I succeeded. I had to download the data as uncompressed .img files from the Mars MOLA data page at the NASA Planetary Data System Geosciences Node housed at the Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). Try saying that five times quickly . . . I then had to use some freeware software called 3DEM that could load the Mars .img files in directly, then export them as TIFFs or PNGs that I could crop in Adobe Photoshop, then load into my software of choice, Daz3D Bryce, as a grayscale heightmap.

Me Teaching Mars data

Teaching how to use the Mars MOLA 3D altitude data, a screen shot from my video.

One person that gave me valuable advice was Kees Veenenbos, whose Mars renderings appeared on the cover of National Geographic. He e-mailed me back and explained where to find the data and how to use Terragens to model it. Years later, when I met Artemis Westenberg as part of the Mars Education Challenge, I told her how I got started doing 3D Mars images and she told me she was good friends with Kees, and that she had some laminated posters of his images. Would I like them? Well – of course! They are hanging on the walls of my classrooms. Here is a link to a Huffington Post article about Kees’ work: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/03/mars-renderings-kees-veenenbos-images_n_3000366.html

Kees image

An image created by Kees Veenenbos using Mars MOLA data and Terragens software. It shows the western end of Valles Marineris and Noctis Labrynthus.

In the years since, system software changes have made 3DEM obsolete. I tried loading the data into Adobe Photoshop as a raw image, but ran into a problem. The Mars data uses an aeroid, or “sea level” measurement as a zero point, and the altitude data is measured up and down from that level. However, Photoshop can’t read negative data. It created two gradients, one for the positive elevation and one for the negative. I figured out a work around in Photoshop, but it left a kind of bathtub ring where the data had to be blurred at the aeroid. I was able to use this technique for our lunar animations, but it wasn’t ideal.

Raw import settings for Mars data

Import settings for the raw .IMG Mars quadrangle data. The data has 16-bits per pixel with both positive and negative values (signed). Reading the .LBL file, the data is 11520 pixels wide by 5632 pixels tall. It is a large file, and may need to be cropped in Adobe Photoshop or other program.

In the meantime, I had started using a program from the National Institutes of Health called Image J. It allowed me to turn numerical data into a grayscale image. After years of using it for other purposes, it occurred to me one morning last year that it might be able to read the Mars .img data. I tried loading it in using the Import-Raw menu and found it had a choice for 16-bit signed data import. That sounded promising. I chose one of the 16 Mars quadrangles from the MOLA data site, typed in the size of the images (11520 by 5632 pixels at 16 bits per pixel) and chose OK. Viola! There was the data, in all its detail!

44n270 quadrangle in ImageJ

The full Mars quadrangle loaded into Image J. This is the megt44n270hb.img file, and contains the areas of Chryse Planitia, Ares Vallis, Aram Chaos, and Mawrth Vallis.

Since then I have used Image J for Mars and lunar data. I recently recorded a video demonstrating the steps for using this data in Daz3D Bryce. Here is the link to the video in YouTube: https://youtu.be/kzdO9PANu_8

Terrain editor in Bryce

Loading the cropped grayscale height map image into the terrain editor in Daz3D Bryce. You must increase the resolution of the grid to Gigantic size, then click the Load buttons under the Pictures tab.

Once you get the image cropped and saved in a format such as a 16-bit PNG or PGM, most 3D modeling programs can load it in as a grayscale height map and create a terrain out of it. I find that and entire Mars quadrangle is rather large for most 3D software to handle, so once I save it as a PNG or PGM from Image J, I use Photoshop or other image manipulation software to crop smaller pieces from the data, which I build into terrains.

Chryse rendering in Bryce

The model of Chryse Planitia flattened on the Y axis with an altitude sensitive texture, rendering in Daz3D Bryce.

I have experimented with printing out these models with a 3D printer. I use Daz3D Carrara to load a cropped height map onto a terrain model, then build a frame around it, rotate the terrain and frame 45 degrees, then build a support underneath it. By rotating the model, I can use the maximum resolution of the printer and avoid printer-added supports so that no clean up is necessary. It’s taken some experimentation to get the size and structure of the frame right, but we have had a few successful prints.

CHryse render 2

Final terrain rendered in Daz3D Bryce.

Mawrth Vallis 3D print

3D print of the Mawrth Vallis area of Mars. By rotating the model 45 °, the 3D printer can have higher resolution without needing extra supports or clean up.

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Students as Teachers


A continuum of student activities, ranging from passive through active to creative.

One of the cornerstones of my education philosophy is that students learn best when they are expected to teach concepts to others. I’ve talked about this at some length on my other blog site at: https://elementsunearthed.com/2011/03/01/second-round-of-chemistry-demostrations/. It is based on the old saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” To which I would add, “Train a man how to teach others how to fish, and you’ve fed an entire village forever.”


My student Desmond presenting at the 2015 STEM Expo.

A number of years ago, I developed a diagram to illustrate the continuum of possible student activities ranging from students as passive consumers of educational content through students interacting with content to students as creators and producers of content. On the left (passive) side, students listen to lectures or watch a video. Since their minds wander, they maybe retain 10% of what’s taught.

In the middle, where students interact with content, are the types of activities we would label “hands on.” They are doing an active cookbook style lab or completing a step-by-step activity where the results are known and predictable. This is certainly better than passively sitting and consuming content, as they are up and doing, but we can do better. We can go beyond hands-on.

On the right side are creative students, doing self-directed inquiry labs where the results aren’t known in advance, the activities are student centered rather than teacher centered, and the students actually create a product, such as a video or lesson plan, that can be shared with others. On the far right side, students become teachers themselves and share what they have learned with others or, best yet, they actually become scientists and ask questions and determine answers, communicating their results with a larger world. What we call Project-Based Learning should largely exist on the right side of this diagram, where students work on self-determined projects with meaningful results that solve local (or even global) problems.


David Black presenting at the 2015 STEM Fest at South Towne Plaza in Sandy, Utah

During the 2014-15 school year, my astronomy students at Walden School were given several opportunities to teach others and share what they’d learned. At the beginning of the school year, the STEM Action Center set up a series of areas in a building at the Utah State Fair where students and teachers from participating schools could present what they are doing. I heard about this opportunity and volunteered my students, and had six students come up with me to do a series of astronomy and chemistry related mini lessons. I had been up the day before by myself to demonstrate how to do simple 3D modeling using Sculptris by Pixologic; I took up about six laptop Macs and anyone that I could pull in and sit down I showed how to model a head. There just weren’t that many people stopping by this building. The next day, my students helped do the demonstrations and went outside to gather people to come in. Again, the numbers weren’t too high but we had fun and showed some of my standby presentations. I ran into a former colleague of mine, Paul Fowkes, who is now teaching at the Granite Technical Center.


Cece and Desmond at the 2015 STEM Fest.

One of the other schools at the State Fair was Beehive Science and Technology Academy and I talked with the students and Director while we were there and he told me that they were planning on hosting a STEM Expo at South Towne Plaza in the spring and invited us to participate. When spring came, two of my students, Desmond and Cece, agreed to travel with me up to Sandy and present. On Saturday, April 25, we travelled up to Sandy and wheeled our materials into the Plaza on my old dilapidated equipment cart. We found that one of the Plaza’s main halls was filled up with students, mostly from Beehive, making presentations. We found a spot along one wall where we could tape up a makeshift screen and near enough to a power outlet that we could plug in our projector. We laid out examples of student STEAM projects and got ready to present.

We spent two hours going through several short demonstrations of about 20 minutes each, including our MESSENGER Student Planetary Investigator project, how to use Sculptris, creating stop motion animations of chemical reactions, and other projects my classes have worked on. Desmond and Cece had the chance to wander around and look at the other presentations going on in between helping me present, and we had a fun time of it. We also got some nice T-shirts for our troubles.


Wyatt helping participants during our first session at the BYU Astrofest, May 16, 2015.

On a Saturday, May 16, 2015, Brigham Young University’s Physics and Astronomy Department held their annual Astrofest and asked me to come present some of our activities, since I had done my BYU Research Experiences for Teachers research that previous summer. I came up with five classes, each to last one hour, starting at 11:00 with one hour off for lunch and to prepare for the last session. The first session was to make RGB images out of WISE infrared data, the second to use the MESSENGER data to make images of Mercury, the third to make to make a stop motion animation of the evolution of the moon, and the fourth to make 3D models using Mars data and search for landing sites for future missions. These were all computer based and merely required me to load some files onto the 12 laptops I brought with me and use my Mars posters and maps. Our last class was to make models of space probes out of candy. I thought this might be a good draw for the mostly elementary aged attendees, and Dr. Denise Stephens, the professor organizing the science day, agreed to pick up the materials and candy I would need.


A simulated lunar surface at the BYU Astrofest in May 2015.

I drove up onto campus and onto the broad sidewalks to the Eyring Science Center and my son Jonathan helped me unload my minivan and take the computers, posters, etc. into the building. I drove the car back to the parking lot and we set up in the room assigned us, just off the stairs on the second floor east hallway. I had to run over to the Wilkinson Center to buy a dongle, because my Mac dongle didn’t seem to be working. Two of my students, Nate and Wyatt, met us at the ESC and helped to run the classes. My first four classes were not terribly well attended – maybe 10-15 each session. But the candy space probe session was packed, so much so that we had to run people through in shifts.


David black presenting how to use LOLA data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probe.

We laid out various types of candy ranging from Graham crackers, stick pretzels, and wafer cookies to Rolo candies, Skittles, Hersey’s kisses, Smarties, Tootsie Rolls, and many more. We allowed them to use coffee stirrers and wooden skewers, and glued it all together with frosting and marshmallow crème. To encourage students to build models of actual probes, I prepared copies of Mars probe diagrams such as Mars Pathfinder and the Exploration Rovers.


Enhanced color Mercury data from the MESSENGER probe, as created by participants at BYU’s 2015 Astrofest.

A rough count of all the participants in just this one hour was about 200. Altogether, we taught about 250-260 children and parents. Jonathan was my photographer, using my iPad’s camera, and many photos were blurry but some turned out well. I am showing you some of them here.


Participants in Astrofest making candy space probe models; May 2015.

The results of this activity were fun and excellent, and some actually did look like the real thing. Others were rather fanciful. Jon built one of his own and brought it home. There was probably as much eating of the candy as there was building. The room was something of a mess after this, so we spent some time cleaning up and trying to get the marshmallow crème off the tables (somehow it got everywhere even with the tablecloths we brought). It was a fun but exhausting day. Wyatt and Nate both enjoyed themselves and were very helpful managing the crowds and helping to teach and answer questions. This was my main reason for doing this – for the benefits it would bring my own students. Wyatt told me after that even though he wasn’t planning on returning to Walden, he still wanted me to have him help me next year.


Using Rolos for wheels.


Not exactly a space probe: “Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!”


The Mars Pathfinder lander built out of candy. I especially like the little wafer Sojourner Rover.


Building space probe models out of candy.


Another satisfied customer . . .


Our candy space probe activity was a huge hit; we had to let people do this in three shifts to get everyone in, and counted about 200 people for this activity.

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