Teaching Space Exploration and Technology at the Elementary School: A Mars Rover-Based Curriculum

Article excerpt

Last year at Brigham Young University we began a new initiative to introduce our first year prospective technology education teachers to "real world" teaching in the classroom. The experience was so successful that we planned a similar experience this year. We partnered with nearby Canyon Crest Elementary School once again to develop a unit and teach the sixth graders about space, engineering, design, and technology. This article presents our efforts in hopes that you might find some of it useful in your classroom.

Curriculum Correlation

Early in the year we met with the three sixth grade teachers, Mrs. Moore, Mrs. ByLund, and Mrs. Cunningham, to discuss correlating the curriculum. We decided to use programmable LEGO[TM] robots in a space exploration activity. BYU students were split into four teams to begin developing curriculum. They researched the Utah state sixth grade core curriculum, Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA, 2000), and any other pertinent references. They decided to use NASA's Mars exploration rover as their focus and contacted NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more about it. By presenting ideas to their peers and to the elementary teachers, the best ideas from each team were eventually combined into a single Mars Rover Unit containing individual daily lesson plans. We then split up into three different instructional teams where five to six BYU students worked on curriculum for Space Exploration, Deployment Design, or Rover Engineering. We had only four days for instruction, with one hour and 40 minutes available per day. Since we wanted to ensure that all sixth grade students received the same opportunity to learn the content, the sixth graders were grouped by their classroom teacher, and they rotated from class to class every 25-30 minutes.

Mars Rover Project

Day 1: We began our first day teaching with all the sixth grade students gathered together. They were shown a simulated 3D video of the Mars Rover Launch, obtained from NASA, that covered the launch, the journey through space, the deployment, and the rover exploring the surface of the planet. Our instructional teams and the students then separated into the three different classrooms to begin the rotations.

* SPACE EXPLORATION--For this group we started with a video and a simple, fun game. The game consisted of making a poem with the beginning letters of each planet. The activity helped the children creatively learn the order of the planets in our solar system. After the game we introduced and started a worksheet that we would use throughout our "planets" section.

* DEPLOYMENT DESIGN--We started by talking about how the NASA engineers had to design a device that would protect the Mars Rover during landing on the surface of Mars. Like the NASA engineers, the students would build a prototype of this deployment vehicle. Their device would have to protect an egg as it fell from a height of 20 feet onto the surface of the lunchroom floor. After discussing the materials available for their prototypes the students began sketching possible designs. They were required to show us two sketches each before they could get their bags of material and start building.

* ROVER ENGINEERING--We introduced our subject. Students got into teams of five or six and immediately began building Mars rovers using LEGO Dacta[TM] building kits. We helped them understand how the motors and gears work and discussed the surface of Mars so they could plan their cars accordingly.

Day 2: We arrived eager to work with the students, and they were eager to get started.

* SPACE EXPLORATION--We used an outside activity to teach the students about planets and distance in space. Before going outside we discussed light years and distances. They then created signs with their planet names on them that they held while pacing off their positions relative to one another outside. In the activity they "became" planets. …