Teaching Mars (Issue #12)

by: Nicole Willett

As a full time secondary Astronomy teacher and the Education Director for The blog 12i abcteachMars Society, I teach a theme-based curriculum.  The theme is centered around Mars, putting humans on the Red Planet and the astrobiology of Mars.  I would not recommend starting any curriculum with Mars.  I always begin with a general overview of the solar system and our place in the universe.  This includes a presentation on the scale of the universe from quarks (sub-atomic particles) to filaments (the largest structures in the universe).  I continue with the planets, starting at Mercury and making my way through all eight planets.  We discuss the Earth-Moon system and the many spacecraft and humans that have visited our next door neighbor.  I also include the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) craft such as the Space Transportation System (STS) program and the International Space Station (ISS).  We discuss the unmanned and manned missions.  This sets up a base for the manned Mars mission proposals.

blog 12j space comWhen I reach the Mars chapter, I give basic Martian planetary data, orbital data, geology, etc.  I point out the similarities with the Martian and Earth day, having only an approximate 40 minute time difference.  Also, I display the axial tilt of both planets, Earth having a 23.5o tilt and Mars having a 25o tilt.  I point out that Earth’s seasons are caused by this tilt and that Mars also has seasons, even though it has a year that is twice as long.  We discuss the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.  I compare and contrast the Earth-Moon system with the Martian system.  I point out the fact that Mars’ moons are most likely captured asteroids that are much smaller than Earth’s moon, closer to Mars than our moon, and they orbit much more rapidly.  We discuss what will happen when Phobos crashes into the surface of Mars and when Deimos drifts away and the affects that will have on the humans who will inhabit the Red Planet at that point.

Next we discuss the spacecraft that have visited Mars from Mariner to Curiosity.  We learn the difference between an orbiter, a rover, and a lander.  The instrumentation on many of the spacecraft are discussed, such as different types of cameras and spectrometers and the purpose of each.  I then continue lecturing about the discoveries made on Mars using the aforementioned instruments.  Some discoveries I point out are the Martian blueberries, or hematite, discovered by the Opportunity Rover.  This discovery verified the assumption by some that water stood on Mars for long periods of time.  Perchlorate was also discovered and I ask them to ponder what affects that would have on any life that may exist on Mars now and the affects that will have on any plant life humans may bring to Mars in the future.   The implications of all of these discoveries are discussed in many ways.  I always encourage my students to ask many questions, open their mind to new ideas, and to question everything they read or hear, including what I say.

I wrap up the Mars section, after four to six weeks, with a student lecture from each student.  They are given a rubric to follow and they must present a five to seven minute power point (or similar format) about a specific subject.  I compile a list for them ahead of time and they get to pick from things such as specific spacecraft, terraforming, Phobos and Deimos, Olympus Mons, Valles Marineris, and many more.  This assignment shows the students that there are many resources available, print and web based, to find information about the Red Planet.  Also, it lets them know how many thousands of people have dedicated their entire lives to research and explore Mars. 

The second semester starts out by wrapping up the outer solar system, and continues with star formation and life cycles, galaxies, and extra-solar planets, and astrobiology.  Meanwhile, the Mars Project gets underway.  This is a complex and comprehensive project that encompasses all of the prior sciences the students have learned, ranging from biology to physics to geology and everything in between.    This culminates in a springtime Science Night where all of the projects are presented.  The projects are heavily Mars based.   212blog 12g nat geo com

One group is building a Mars Curiosity Rover which will be “driven” by guests over the Martian terrain which is also built by students.  The second class is building Earth based and LEO spaceports where the manned spacecraft bound for Mars will launch.  The third class is building dioramas representing six groups that are sending humans to the Red Planet.  Group 1 is Physics and Engineering who determine the trajectory to Mars and develop habitats for the landing crew.  Group 2 is Astronomy which researches weather patterns, the sky view on Mars and the moons.  Group 3 is Geology and they research the volcanos, Valles Marineries, the history of water, soil and rocks.  Group 4 is Chemistry and they delve into the atmosphere and decide how to utilize the gases to make fuel for a return to Earth.  Group 5 is Astrobiology and they are tasked with finding a “Martian” of some type to study.  The astrobiologists send the organisms to the Group 6 Biology Lab for DNA sequencing, to compare Martian DNA to Earth DNA.  The final class deals with terraforming Mars.  They are divided into six groups which build Martian dioramas to reflect Mars at Terraforming Year Zero all the way through year 1,000.  They must go from setting up habitats for the first human, building greenhouses, all the way through melting subsurface ice which will eventually thicken the atmospheric pressure.  At this point the water flows on the surface and rain falls with a backdrop of a blue sky and white clouds.  Each student must follow a rubic which includes a participation grade, a research paper and the appearance of the visual presentation.

The students thoroughly enjoy these projects.  They feel very engaged in science when they get to do hands on projects.  This project is completed by high school seniors; however, it can be tailored to any age group, broken up into pieces, or even separated into different grade levels.  Please see the Official Mars Society Curriculum for other ideas about teaching a Martian theme based class.  Feel free to contact me with any questions.  nicolew@marssociety.org