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Mission Cognition

Fifth-grade students undertake a mission to Mars

Science and Children—January/February 2021 (Volume 58, Issue 3)

By Ronald W. Rinehart, Benjamin D. Olsen, Lisa Freese, and Mason Kuhn

Mission Cognition

Space exploration is intrinsically interesting to young learners. Children gaze at the stars and marvel at what it might be like to live “out there!” With the July 2020 launch of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission, and its landing in 2021, there is no better time to capitalize on engineering and science in the news. This mission is particularly historic with NASA’s announcement that the Mars 2020 Rover is designed to be the initial stage of multiple missions that will return the first Martian rock samples back to Earth for analysis. Further, this mission will pave the way for human-occupied missions to Mars slated for the 2030s.

NASA missions involve discrete engineering challenges like developing objects and tools that withstand space travel, but they also involve deep consideration of the processes and systems needed to complete the entire mission. We didn’t just want a single engineering challenge; instead we aimed to promote engineering-based systems thinking. We designed an engaging learning environment focused on developing the processes and systems needed for a successful mission to Mars. Here we describe a long-term voyage undertaken by our intrepid fifth-grade Mars explorers.

Such a mission requires a holistic and interconnected understanding of humans, machines and robots, and the physical environment of Mars. The Next Generation Science Standards direct us to consider the “objects, tools, processes, and systems” (NGSS Lead States 2013, p. 46) needed to engage in authentic engineering. A Framework for K–12 Science Education considers engineering “…in a very broad sense to mean any systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems” (NRC 2012, p. 11). This expanded understanding of engineering in the standards aligns with the work of NASA’s scientists and engineers.

Every NASA mission involves an integrated set of multiple challenges; we sought to replicate this by focusing students on three major challenges. The NGSS for engineering give students the opportunity to “Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem” (NGSS Lead States 2013, 3-5-ETS1-2). For each challenge, students generated, compared, and reconsidered their proposed solutions in light of mission constraints and actual NASA criteria (NGSS Lead States 2013, D.C.I., 3-5-ETS1-2). Mission to Mars had five phases, including (1) Pre-mission planning, (2) Challenge 1: Preparing a crew and packing, (3) Challenge 2: Evaluating potential landing sites, (4) Challenge 3: Planning a rover route, and (5) Post-mission reflection.

Phase 1: Pre-Mission Planning

Phase 1 took place over four class periods and included a mixture of group and individual work. Students engaged in a lively discussion as they populated gallery walk posters with what they already knew about launching things into space, space travel, and Mars. On their posters, students shared useful ideas about living in space like the need for special suits and oxygen as well as uncertainty about topics related to Mars itself. For example, students wanted to know if Mars had multiple moons or if there was anything alive there right now. Next, students were asked about the Aims, Goals, and Objectives (modified from de Bono 1985) of a human-occupied mission to Mars. Students recorded their individual ideas on a short worksheet and then shared with the class.

Planning a mission requires consideration of many complex and interlocking factors. As a pretest, students individually completed a short worksheet called “Consider All Factors” (modified from de Bono 1985) where they were asked to list all of the important variables that would need to be addressed in a mission to Mars. This was also used as an individual posttest and is discussed in detail in Phase 5. Students ended this phase with primary research to address their questions about Mars. Students read from multiple nonfiction books (CCSS.ELA.RI.5.9), explored NASA websites, and found related videos (see Resources).

Social Distancing Adaptation: Spread the gallery walk posters at least 6 feet apart and spread out the students so they are in smaller groups. Distance Learning Adaptation: Place students in breakout rooms to discuss their ideas and then have a group leader share their thoughts with the whole class. Ideas can be shared and recorded on a Google Doc as well.

Phase 2: Packing Challenge

Phase 2 occurred over four class periods. Students received a small worksheet packet (see NSTA Connection) that included instructions on selecting their mission specialists, packing their spaceship, and meeting the challenges of landing and surviving on Mars. Just like NASA engineers, students worked in small groups to brainstorm the most important challenges of a mission to Mars. They selected three astronauts from among five options: pilot, engineer, geologist, biologist, and doctor. The teacher used a brief sequence of slides to familiarize students with each astronaut and the emergencies they could solve (see Figure 1). Each crew combination represents a potential solution to the mission challenges. Students engaged in higher-order thinking as they justified their proposed solution (crew combination) and explained their reasoning to their group.

Figure 1
Medical mission specialist description.

Medical mission specialist description.

Students then engaged in a physical packing activity using blocks representing different materials needed for the voyage (Figure 2). They had to meet basic mission needs and also pack emergency kits for each specialist they chose (e.g., medical kit for the doctor). They packed the blocks into a small plastic container (the spaceship) with a lid (the hatch), which had to close. Then they took off for Mars. Students rolled a six-sided die five times to see what challenges they encountered (see NSTA Connection). If they had the correct mission specialists matched with the correct equipment, they would succeed. Students were highly engaged as they kept track of their successes and misses, discussed their choices, and re-tried the challenge.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Packing instructions.

Packing instructions.

Phase 2 concluded with students building and launching paper stomp rockets in an attempt to hit the “landing ellipse.” Each mission to Mars has a landing ellipse, the region in which NASA hopes the rover lands. Missing the ellipse has significant consequences because rovers are very slow (they move just a few kilometers per year). Students learned about the landing ellipses for past missions, then attempted to land their rocket in a hula-hoop (the landing ellipse) placed about 8–10 meters away. A gymnasium or outdoor courtyard and safety glasses are needed. The full sequence of activities for Phase 2 is shared online (see NSTA Connection). Social Distancing Adaptation: Most of these activities can be done with students wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. Distance Learning Adaptation: Students can make suggestions on how to pack the ship and the teacher can demonstrate their suggestions. If the school is able to purchase supplies and send them to each student, small groups can meet in breakout rooms, pack their ships individually, discuss why they chose each item, and negotiate their group design. The teacher can demonstrate the stomp rocket activity.

Figure 3
Earth and Mars landforms.

Earth and Mars landforms.

Phase 3: Landing Site Challenge

Students selected the best rover landing site from NASA’s three finalist sites, using three of NASA’s actual criteria from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “2nd Mars 2020 Landing Site Workshop” (Grant and Golombeck 2015). Making use of criteria to evaluate options is a key element of the engineering standard that asks students to “Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem” (NGSS Lead States 2013, 3-5-ETS1-2).

This challenge took three class periods to complete (see NSTA Connection). Students’ background knowledge of landforms was developed by making comparisons between five types of Earth landforms (rivers, deltas, craters, sand dunes, and mesas) as seen both from space and on the ground, and then visually comparing them to their analogues on Mars (Figure 3). Students evaluated each site’s suitability based on NASA’s criteria: (1) preservation of ancient rocks, (2) likelihood of past habitability, and (3) safety. Some geologic processes, like meteor impacts or lava flows, can alter or destroy rock layers, making the affected regions less desirable when searching for past life on Mars. Rock types associated with water, like those formed from sediment deposited in rivers or deltas, are desirable because of the increased probability of finding past life. Finally, students considered the safety of the terrain for the rover.

 Students pack their capsule to Mars.

Students pack their capsule to Mars.

It was common for groups to arrive at different conclusions with respect to the three criteria. For example, one group decided that past habitability was the most important criterion, stating that if there was no real possibility of life at that landing site then there was no reason to go there. Conversely, another group argued that rover safety was the most important. One student said “Rover safety because if the rover breaks down, then it can’t look for rocks, it’s just broken.” As a rebuttal to this argument a student who believed that past habitability was most important responded that “…rover safety is becoming a lot easier than it used to be” because the technology has improved. NASA scientists engage in similar conversations. To encourage students to reason authentically about these mission variables, the teacher promoted discussion of possible alternative views, and their justification, without pushing for a “right answer.”

In small groups, students discussed how well each landing site met the criteria, generated a written evaluation of each site, and shared with the class. Using their informational reading skills in the service of engineering, students integrated information from multiple text sources to arrive at informed judgments about the best landing site for their mission. This challenge was highly authentic. We used NASA materials from a conference focused on selecting landing sites, and anchored texts to relevant images to make them accessible to students. The sequence of activities for Phase 3 is shared online (see NSTA Connection).

Phase 4: Roving Challenge

Students developed rover route maps both on paper and on a simulated Martian terrain. Figure 4a shows an abstraction of NASA’s depot caching strategy whereby the rover visits multiple regions, collects samples, and deposits them at a central location for future retrieval. In addition to connections to engineering, this phase also had significant ties to mathematical standards as students developed their skills to reason abstractly and quantitatively (CCSS.Math.Practice.MP2).

Figure 4
Roving challenge.

Roving challenge.

Route Planning

Students received Figure 4b as a handout and generated a route to collect rock samples worth different values representing their scientific utility. An additional worksheet (also shown in Figure 4b) was used by students to tabulate their samples collected and distance traveled. Collecting a sample is risky—NASA’s rovers have frequently suffered unexpected damage during this phase of their missions—so for each site students rolled a die to see if they also collected a hazard point (damage) to their rover. If they accumulated too much damage, their rover came to a stop and they tried again. Students used the same map multiple times (up to a point, and with different colored pens) to compare their multiple solutions, and shared them with their group.

Students debated on the best routes for the rover to take. Some felt that they should be as efficient as possible and only make the moves they needed. Others felt strongly that going after higher value sample targets was more important than producing the most direct route. A few even took the stance that they were on Mars to explore, so they were fine with letting the rover wander a little. Students were extremely interested in each other’s routes. Spontaneous sharing, brainstorming, and problem-solving were commonplace as students excitedly shared their latest attempt with their peers.

Students generated multiple solutions until they reached 70% efficiency, the criterion for success. Efficiency was calculated by summing the value of the rock samples and dividing by the distance traveled. Most students continued to push past 70% while aiming for ever higher levels of route efficiency, reaching well into the 80–90% range. In short, students eagerly took on this task by establishing their own personal criteria for success. This activity took one day to complete. If the school has a robotic platform available, we also recommend the robotic roving activity (next). If not, the map activity simulates the engineering problems of route planning rather well and is an affordable alternative that students will certainly enjoy.

Social Distancing and Distance Learning Adaptations: Convert the paper map into a Google Slide so that students can draw directly on the map while physically separated. See the online materials (see NSTA Connection) for the original images.

Robotic Roving

Students translated their maps onto a simulated Martian terrain (Figure 4c). We purchased inexpensive painters’ tarps and painted them to look like Mars (NASA has a Mars Yard where rovers are tested) and painted cardboard cutouts to simulate hazards (rocks, outcrops, sand traps). Students marked regions of interest on the map with tape (X marks the spot) and attempted to program their rover to navigate the route. Students found this enjoyable and difficult. We used the Dash robotic platform to teach block-style programming. Roving works best in pairs. One student can measure and the second can program, affording active participation for all students including those with mobility constraints.

The students were very excited to successfully code their rover through the physical course. There were many variables that they had to contend with throughout the entire route and they displayed a lot of pride in their accomplishments when they finally found success. Multiple times, students were overheard exclaiming some variation of, “That was awesome!”

The full sequence of activities can be found online (see NSTA Connection) and took two days to complete. Social Distancing Adaptation: If a large space (cafeteria, gymnasium, etc.) is available, students can spread out and maintain their distance as one person plots a route and measures and another completes the programming. Handwashing and cleaning commonly used surfaces after handling would be advised.

Phase 5: Post Mission—Assessment, Reflections, and Reasoning

Two posttests focused on higher order thinking assessed changes in students’ engineering-based reasoning. For posttest 1, students evaluated a Mars mission plan from another (fictional) group of students. Students first analyzed this mission independently and then shared with their groups. This provoked a vigorous discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the alternative approach as students showcased their new engineering knowledge.

To prompt students to think reflectively and metacognitively, they completed a new “Consider all Factors” worksheet as posttest 2, which we then discussed as a group. Students compared their old ideas to their new ideas. There was a significant increase in sophistication from merely basic concerns on the pretest (food, water, etc.) to a deeper concern with mission variables on the post-test (the need for a plan, criteria for landing sites, selecting a crew, etc.). As an example, one student’s pretest mentioned merely physical factors like “…supply of food, water, materials such as wood, metal, and others.” They did not include logistical factors or scientific mission variables. On the posttest, this student expanded their thinking to include the mission planning and science considerations, saying, “Well you need a plan. A thoroughly thought-through landing site, a rover, all your supplies…” as well as “These three main priorities help too. Safety, ancient habitability, and preservation of ancient rocks.” Students’ progress can be monitored across all major areas of the identified NGSS components with the included rubric (see NSTA Connection).

This artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA's Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that will expand the knowledge base for future Mars missions.

This artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. NASA's Mars 2020 rover will carry a number of technologies that will expand the knowledge base for future Mars missions.

Future Mars Missions

We found this unit to be quite flexible and open to expansion. A future Mission to Mars could include lessons on developing better propulsion systems, human-occupied crew quarters, attempts to establish short duration habitats on the surface, or even the use of drones (the Perseverance Rover has the first Mars Drone aboard). Teachers who find our approaches and techniques of interest are encouraged to use them as a springboard to develop more engineering lessons and units that make use of students’ fascination with space exploration. At a recent meeting of the Space Exploration Educators Conference at Space Center Houston, NASA astronaut Joseph Abarca encouraged the teachers present to consider that the students in their classrooms will be the next generation of outer space explorers destined for Mars in the 2030s, 2040s, and beyond.


This project is based upon work supported by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium under NASA Award No. NNX16AL88H and the University of Northern Iowa’s Office of the Provost.

Internet Resources

The Curious Life of a Mars Rover

Curiosity Completes Its First Martian Year

7 Minutes of Terror: The Challenges of Getting to Mars

7 Minutes of Terror Info Graphic from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

2020 Landing Site for Mars Rover Mission

Print Resources

Aldrin, B., and M.J. Dyson. 2015. Welcome to Mars: Making a home on the Red Planet. Washington, DC: National Geographic Kids.

Carson, M.K. 2011. Far-out guide to Mars. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Bailey Books.

Motum, M. 2018. Curiosity: The story of a Mars rover. London: Walker Studio.

O’Brien, P. 2009. You are the first kid on Mars. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Ronald W. Rinehart ( is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, IA. Benjamin D. Olsen ( and Lisa Freese ( are elementary teachers in the Cedar Falls Community School District. Mason Kuhn ( is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Northern Iowa.


de Bono, E. 1985.The CoRT thinking program. Thinking and Learning Skills 1: 363–88.

Grant, J., and M. Golombeck. 2015. Introduction to the Landing Site workshop. 2015 2nd Landing Site Workshop for the 2020 Mars Rover mission. Monrovia, California.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Rusch, E. 2017. The mighty Mars rovers: The incredible adventures of spirit and opportunity. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

Aerospace Astronomy Physical Science Elementary Grade 5

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