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by Patrick Dyer
Hillcrest School

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Topic tags: Gold Standard

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May 12, 2016
NASA Scientist + Mars Rovers + LEGO = Engaged 4th Graders

by Patrick Dyer
Hillcrest School

Fourth graders tackle reading, writing and arithmetic every day, but how often do they get to help NASA decide where a rover on Mars will go next?

Last December, my fourth grade students in Oakland listened intently as their hometown favorite, Bobak Ferdowsi, discussed his ongoing robotic space mission to Mars. They quickly nicknamed him “the Mohawk Guy” and sat in awe as they listened to this world-renowned engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explain NASA’s challenge to build a rover that could effectively explore and collect data on the challenging terrain of Mars. (I found Bobak via the Nifty Fifty “Bring a Top Scientist to Your School” Program.)

Bobak immediately struck a chord with these kids. Their creative juices started to flow as they took on his challenge to join the mission that the robotic spacecrafts, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, have embarked upon and help determine where it should go next on Mars. 

Like the layers of an onion, this project involves an understanding of many different revolving parts and students have to understand concepts including robotics, coding, the properties of Mars, time and distance. 

Bring On the LEGO Robots
In order to understand the complexities behind robotics, in comes a retro kids’ favorite: LEGO. LEGO Mindstorms EV3 allows students to use traditional style blocks along with cables, wires, and cords to build, program, and command their own robot. Previously, LEGO limited users to building and constructing structures, but now LEGO Mindstorms EV3 allows users to create structures that move and complete missions. Just like traditional LEGO, once students get their creative juices flowing and build a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robot, they can deconstruct it and rebuild it into another robot. 

The LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit gives students the opportunity to understand the complexities behind building a robot-controlled vehicle. While studying the properties of Mars, it allows them to build and rebuild systems that may or may not work in different environmental conditions. Most important, it allows them to make mistakes and see that their ideas might thrive in one circumstance but not another. And what kid doesn’t need that resiliency?

Students quickly learn that if their robot cannot do what they want, it does not matter how neat it looks. They master basic online coding skills that teach them how to command their robot. Most students are mesmerized to learn that a robot cannot move forward if they do not program the remote to go onward, or that they can code the left button on the remote to actually make the robot go right. 

Understanding Mars
Not only do students have to learn how robotics impacts the current mission on Mars, they must also understand the properties of Mars and how it compares to Earth. Students use 3D pictures that both Spirit and Curiosity captured to understand these properties. These images bring the surface of Mars to life and help students understand how the rovers interacted with the red planet.  

Students also must understand the complexities behind traveling to and landing on Mars. Throughout the project, students use a combination of traditional and interactive explorable maps from NASA that outline the paths Mars rovers took on their journey. The cameras on Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity provide rich resources for students to analyze properties of Mars. Using 3D glasses created by students, these interactive images give the viewer a rich perspective into the rocky terrains, steep craters, and mountains that cover Mars. 

To better understand why engineers made the decisions to move the rovers to their current positions, students can also print out topographical maps of both rovers’ paths using NASA generated 3D printable files and MakerBot printers. Ferdowsi stunned students when he divulged that he and other engineers have a twenty minute time delay between a command given on Earth and when the rover receives it on Mars. 

                                                                                                 Sharing Students’ Ideas
Students create individual blogs through Weebly that track their learning and findings each day. This provides them with the opportunity to blog about original ideas, such as when important parts are missing from the rovers, which direction Spirit, Opportunity, or Curiosity should go next, or where the next rover should land based on the scientific evidence they collect. It also ensures that all students are held responsible for developing their own ideas and supporting them based on data collected during this project. To add to the excitement, Weebly blogging allows engineers and others at NASA’s JPL to read ideas from students. After NASA engineers read these suggestions, some could be adopted into the next rover that explores Mars. What better way is there for kids to show their creativity?   

To celebrate, Ferdowsi will return home to Oakland and hear presentations from students about what they think the next course of action for Mars rovers should be.

As their teacher, it is mesmerizing to watch students articulate concepts that NASA engineers debate daily. If my fourth graders can articulate the challenges of traveling to space when they are ten, imagine the problems they will be able to solve when they are twenty!

 

Do you have questions or comments about this project? Please enter them below.


 Comments

  • This project is cool i wonder what Bobak will do with his hair this time

    TrisWest on May 12, 2016 
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    • Are you one of his students? I’m curious, why do you think the project is cool? What are you learning? Does it help you learn math, science, and reading?

      John Larmer on May 13, 2016 
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      • Yes, I am his student. I am in Yale class – we have college names.  It is cool because we can work as a team and build a working robot that can move and do neat tasks such as picking up things or breaking things.  We have to read and do math to build and learn about the Rover as a team.

        TrisWest on May 17, 2016 
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    • I am wondering that too.

      ASHER HOFFMAN-PAUL on May 14, 2016 
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    • i am wondering that too hopefully awesome and new.!!!!!

      asherhp on May 19, 2016 
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  • This is such an amazing opportunity! I feel so grateful that Zack is the right place (your class) at the right time!

    dani.r on May 13, 2016 
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    • Yes, it sounds like a great project! What benefits do you see from teaching with this kind of project-based approach?

      John Larmer on May 13, 2016 
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      • I see this STEM PBL plan hitting on a lot of core PBL identifiers (your gold standard) in that you can’t get a more authentic entry event than a JPL scientist coming to your school to lay down the challenge. The article should have mentioned it’s timeline and an example of formative assessments, and final artifacts, but in general this is exactly the scaffold that can be used by any educator that has a “STEM” professional community member that wants to make connections outside school walls to bring those scenarios into their PBL classroom!

        Robert Wilson on May 15, 2016 
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  • Thanks Mr. Dyer, this is fantastic - Tristan E is inspired and excited.  David.

    DJE on May 13, 2016 
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  • It is going to be awesome. But I don’t know really how to make a lego robot. It is going to be so hard.

    - Elias

    across510 on May 14, 2016 
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  • This project has really captured Frankie’s interest - she’s so excited to go to school and work on it some more!  Thanks for providing our kids with this type of opportunity and bring on the robots!

    dominiquecroteau on May 14, 2016 
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  • I am very excited to build all of the rovers. It struck me that you can make multiple different kinds of rovers just with one kit!

    ilancb on May 15, 2016 
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  • This project looks very futuristic and prepare may be for an their eventual visit of Mars!

    mety on May 15, 2016 
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  • We look forward to completing this Mars Mission. It sounds very fun and Quinn is excited to participate!

    MyNameIsJoe (AKA Quinn) on May 16, 2016 
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  • My favorite part of this project is going to be building the Rover. I wonder what group of kids I’m going to be in. I hope I’m working with kids I get along with.

    ALeduc on May 16, 2016 
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  • T Minus Five… four… three… two… one BLAST OFF into the exciting space exploration to the red planet. The Mars Rover Project + NASA Scientist at Hillcrest School will be an out of this world learning adventure for our beloved 4th Graders.  What an opportunity to inspire the curious young minds with LEGO robotics. James is super excited to be part of this amazing journey.

    In the future, a human being may actually set foot onto the surface of Planet Mars.  Before that day comes, many unmanned “Mars Mission” will take place to pave the way.  Are you ready future “Marstronauts” ?

    JamesO on May 17, 2016 
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  • this sounds like the best most fun lego experiment!!!!!!!

    asherhp on May 19, 2016 
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