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Suggested Approach to the Mars Analog Challenge



Here is our suggested approach to conducting the Mars Analog Challenge with your students.   This outline is intended to provide you a framework from which to work.  Each class setting is different, so we welcome modifications and creativity, and we encourage you to share “best practices” that have worked well for you so that we can pass your ideas along to fellow teachers.  Enjoy!

SET THE STAGE:  As soon as you finish assigning student IDs and implementing the Pre-Challenge Student Survey (see Welcome letter), familiarize your students with the purpose of the Mars Analog Challenge by exposing them to important background information.

  1. Browse digital pictures and field journals from two summer trips to Lassen Volcanic National Park and use the captions to engage students in thinking about the differences and similarities between Earth and Mars. 
  2. LINK 1:  (Three day pictorial account)

    LINK 2:  (Scientist Bill Clancey’s annotated photos)

  3. Explore these links with your students and host a class discussion about what an analog is and its scientific role.
  4. LINK 3:  (Get to know your experts)

    LINK 4:  (What is a Mars analog?)

    LINK 5:  (More about Mars analogs)

    LINK 6:  (Helpful background research)

  5. (Optional enrichment) Download and use the online Quest program “What’s the Difference?” to compare and contrast the conditions on Mars with those of Earth with respect to the following environmental factors:
    There are two download options:
    1. What's The Difference? full version includes teacher authoring tool. Once downloaded launch the Solar System (or solar system.exe for the PC).
    2. Solar System Explorer is a scaled-down version.

    • Air pressure
    • Liquid water
    • Sources/types of radiation
    • Temperature
    • Breathable air
    • Surface gravity
  6. Highlight and host a class discussion about the following five concepts framing the Mars Analog Challenge.  This is an ideal opportunity to introduce/reinforce the idea that scientists have to make trade-offs in order to work and live within the limitations of the environment with current technology.
  • Habitat/Living
    • How would humans sleep on Mars? Where/how would they live?
    • What/how would they eat?
    • Tradeoff:  Jen can pack a lot of food in her van and she can go to a local restaurant.  Should astronauts bring all their food from Earth (a lot of weight!) or grow some of their food on Mars (this technology would need to be developed)?
  • Protection/Clothing
    • How could humans protect themselves from harmful radiation, extreme temperature, low air pressure, and the lack of breathable air?
    • What might their clothing be made of?  What would it feel like?
    • Tradeoff:  More protection often means heavier, bulkier clothing.  How much clothing is enough to give adequate protection while still allowing maneuverability?  Gloves are a good item to investigate.
  • Transportation
    • How could humans travel around Mars after arriving on the surface?  (Bypass the idea of how they would travel through Space from Earth and focus on surface transportation.)
    • How long could each trip last and how far could they travel?
    • Tradeoff:  A non-pressurized “Mars buggy” would be cheaper and lighter weight, whereas a pressurized rover is much more expensive but might enable more distant forays across the planet.
  • Assistance
    • Scientists on Earth often have human partners to assist them while exploring and doing research. What kind of helper or “mobile assistant” could humans use on Mars?
    • What functions could these “mobile assistants” perform and what might be their limitations?
    • Tradeoff:  How many people and how many mobile assistants should be required to go on expeditions outside of the habitat? More assistants (human or robotic) means more complex planning and requires more “outside” equipment.  However, having more assistants may make the expedition safer.
  • Science/Instrumentation
    • Scientists explore snow algae and gullies on Earth to form ideas about the conditions on Mars. Why would these be useful environments to explore?
    • What tools might be useful on Mars and how would they need to be modified so that humans could use them in the Martian environment? See a partial list of Jennifer’s instruments.
    • Tradeoff:  Scientists will often put redundant systems out in the field so they don’t lose data if one fails.  Is this practical on Mars?  More instruments means more weight to transport, more time to install, and more computer systems to gather data.  However, if an instrument fails and there are no backup instruments, then a scientist may lose data she has waited years to get.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER:  Divide your class into five science/engineering teams—one team for each concept.  The idea is for each team to design solutions within their concept area that complement the other teams’ solutions and concept areas.  For example, the team focusing on science/instrumentation should design tools that will complement the gloves that may be designed by the protection/clothing team—each group should consider the size of the tools and the bulk of the fabric.

NOTE:  If you are working with a small class or a single student, then you may choose to focus on only ONE of the five concepts.

KICKOFF EVENT OCTOBER 13:  This web chat or webcast will kick-start the Challenge and will complement the pre-Challenge discussions you have had with your students. Students will “meet the experts” and will have the opportunity to ask them questions.

PRELIMINARY DESIGN AND PEER FEEDBACK:  Have your students work in their teams and brainstorm preliminary design ideas.  Once each team completes a design, bring the class together for team mini-presentations.  Each team will describe or “present” their ideas to the rest of the class and acquire peer feedback. This is the perfect time for teams to identify “conflicts” between their designs. For example, will the design created by the “Assistance” team mesh with the “Transportation” team’s ideas?  Remind your students that even though their team is specializing in a particular concept, they must continue to look at the whole picture and envision each team’s ideas working together in one environment.  Upon discussing ideas with and soliciting feedback from the class, teams should fine-tune their initial design into a preliminary design to be submitted for scientific review.

PRELIMINARY DESIGN AND SCIENTIST FEEDBACK:  Preliminary designs must be submitted on or before October 31. These designs will be posted on the web, and NASA scientists will review them and reply with feedback online regarding the design’s strengths and weaknesses. This feedback will be provided during the first weeks of November.

FINAL DESIGN SUBMISSION:  Teams will refine their preliminary designs into a final design based on the scientists’ feedback they received.  Final designs must be submitted on or before November 21 and will be posted on the web. Final designs should be submitted as follows:

  • Poster or Digital Pictures – the key is to submit something tangible that can be viewed by all Challenge participants.  Examples would be:  poster, model, diorama, modified articles of clothing, digital pictures or diagram, etc.  (Digital images of these examples will be accepted so that you do not have to mail the actual items.) 
  • Narrative Description – a brief, written description of the design should be included. For example, if a team designed an article of protective clothing, their description would include the type of material used, its size and thickness, its purpose/intended use, etc.
  • Compare/Contrast Analysis – each team should briefly explain how their Martian design compares to related Earth designs. This is a simple compare/contrast exercise, which synthesizes the purpose of the Challenge—to use a Mars Analog here on Earth to recognize similarities and differences and to think about how humans could live and work on the Martian surface. 

NOTE:  Some pictures may be posted on the web or used in a summary report to highlight student ideas and work.  Therefore, if student faces are clearly visible in the pictures you send, then NASA will require that you complete a release form for those students.  This only applies to identifiable “face shots”; pictures containing profiles, backs of student heads, or pictures only showing the project and not the student(s) will not require a release form. A release form is available in .pdf format.

CLASS-WIDE PRESENTATION:  Gather your teams together to conduct an all-inclusive presentation to their school or grade level. This activity will allow your students to see the “big picture” as they demonstrate to their peers how their five designs work and how they also complement and support one another.  Although NASA will not be directly participating in this activity, we feel it is a key component that demonstrates how scientists, researchers, and engineers ultimately work together to conduct exploration missions.

GRAND FINALE WEBCAST:  A final webcast will be hosted on December 6, in which final designs will be posted and discussed by NASA personnel.  This interactive, culminating event will allow your students to learn about the ideas submitted by other classrooms around the world as well as enjoy the spotlight as their design is presented.

GIVE US FEEDBACK!  After the final web cast, have your students return to the computer to complete the Post-Challenge Student Survey/Reaction Questionnaire.   You, the teacher, will also need to complete the online Teacher Reaction Questionnaire.  These feedback forms allow us to learn which aspects of the Challenge students enjoy most as well as identify ways to make future Challenges more useful to your classroom curriculum and environment.

Thank you for participating in the Here Today; Gone to Mars Challenge.  We hope this information helps guide you through the Challenge process; however, if you have an approach that works better for you, then please share.  We welcome “best practices” to pass along to other participants.

NASA Ames Quest Challenge Team


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NASA Official: Mark León
Last Updated: May 2005
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