by Patrick Dyer
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.
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!
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