Mars Discovery Program: Classroom Connections

Verizon Innovative Learning explorer lab

The engineering design process is directly applicable across the middle school curriculum and can be integrated into life science, physical science, math, and earth science classes. Below we have provided some connections for teachers in each of these subjects.


  • Solar System
  • Geological Timescales
  • Analysis of rock strata
  • Properties of Planets
  • The Sun
  • Scale and Distance
  • Craters

Activity suggestions


Surface of Mars
Students take a core sample from a play-doh map of the surface of Mars or different candy bars to determine the order of events that created planetary surfaces, determine age and explore other geologic phenomenon. By observing the properties and size of each layer along with different objects present, they can then identify each phenomenon that may have caused the layers to form. Students are able to create a possible timeline of events for the location of the core. For example, lava flow, glaciers, fossils, caters, and more can all be possible observations! The Areology – The Study of Mars activity is provided by the Solar System Exploration division of NASA.

Builds towards NGSS MS-ESS1-4: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth’s 4.6-billion-year-old history.


Making Craters
Students drop differently sized and shaped objects into bins of cocoa powder over flour to observe relative impact craters and how this shapes the surface of planets. This allows students to identify parts of a crater, and compare and contrast different objects. This can lead to a discussion of the formation of the surface of Mars. Visit the Science Sparks website for the Crater activity.

Builds towards NGSS MS-ESS2-2: Construct an explanation for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales.


Gravity on Other Planets
Students determine their weight and how high they can jump on other planets. An introduction to gravity, this lesson allows students to calculate their own weight (or the weight of other objects) and how high they would be able to jump on different planets with hands-on data collection and analysis. The Gravity: It depends on where you are! is provided by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. To help students understand how gravity affects their weight and to teach the difference between mass and weight, the Lunar Planetary Institute provides information on creating scales that reflect student’s weight on other planets. Scales are modified so that when student’s step on them they see what their weight would be on planets like Jupiter and Mercury and can compare the different effects of gravity. Teachers can discuss the effect of the size of the planet on the strength of gravity and the relationships between gravity and mass. The activity and scales guide are provided in the Heavyweight Champion: Jupiter activity.

Builds towards NGSS MS-ESS1-2: Develop and use a model to describe the role of gravity in the motions within galaxies and the solar system.


Get to Know the Solar System
Students are assigned a property (size, atmosphere, orbital path, etc.), then investigate objects in the solar system (planets, asteroids, etc.) to gather data on their property. The class then creates a class set of solar system properties for each object, to use for comparison and analysis of different objects. This can lead into a discussion of solar system creation. Classes can use, a free open source planetarium for the computer, to explore and gather data. Background data and curriculum ideas can be found here: Planetary properties: A systems perspective.

Builds towards NGSS MS-ESS1-3: Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.


Earth, Earth’s Moon, Mars Balloons
Students develop models of the Earth, Moon, and Mars to understand their relative sizes and distances to each other.  Students inflate three balloons to specific circumferences, then create a scale model of the Earth, Moon, and Mars. Prediction, discussion, and mathematics work together to allow students to compile their own understanding of the scale and relationship of these three bodies. The activity is provided on NASA’s Mars website as Earth, Earth’s Moon, Mars Balloons.

Builds towards NGSS MS-ESS1-3: Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.


Images from Noun Project Created by isfi_designer, Egorova Valentina, Marvdrock, Ben Davis, andriwidodo


Activity suggestions


Landing on Mars
Before rovers can explore Mars, they have to first safely land on the surface. This is done by lander units.  If the lander is not designed properly the lander might crash and the rover inside will be crushed. Years of scientific work can be lost in minutes. An example of this recently occurred with the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli Lander which crashed into the Mars surface in 2016 due to a 1-second delay. Yet even in this defeat, scientists and engineers can study what went wrong to better design landers in the future. The Egg Drop Lander activity from Arizona University has students design and build their own landers to bring “rovers” to Mars safely using common materials.

Builds towards NGSS MS-ETS1-1: Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.


Design a Mission to Mars
The Marsbound! Mission to the Red Planet engineering challenge has students work in groups to design a mission to Mars and face the similar constraints as NASA does: cost, mass of the spacecraft, and adequate power. Looking at NASA’s missions for Mars, they will decide what their scientific goals will be for the mission, how they will design the proper spacecraft, and what scientific objectives they will achieve. Students discuss the constraints and problems they face during their design process. This engineering activity could be specified for specific topics like the search for life, the search for water, characterizing geology, or preparation of Mars for human exploration.

Builds towards MS-ETS1-2: Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.


Images from Noun Project Created by munging kim, Viktor Korobkov


  • Microscopic life
  • Organic compounds
  • Surviving in space
  • Adaptations to environment
  • Origins of life
  • Cell function in space

Activity suggestions


Studying Cells in Space
All life on Earth evolved and developed within the constraints of gravity. On planets like Mars, the force of gravity is significantly less; what that means for life on these planets is unknown. Scientists on the International Space Station are performing molecular and cellular biology experiments in space to understand how low gravity affects the basic units of life: cells. Their findings will not only increase our understanding how life could survive on other planets but could provide information to create better medicines here on Earth. Exploration of the types of biological science experiments occurring on the International Space Station can be used to start discussions on how cells are adapted to living with gravity and how gravity affects basic cellular structure and function. This can be extrapolated to show how changes in cells can make larger changes in an organism. This is a great resource about the Heart Cells study researching how heart muscle tissue contracts, grows, and changes in low gravity. It includes video of heart cells beating in space.

Builds towards NGSS MS-LS1-3: Use argument supported by evidence for how the body is a system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells.


Searching for Life
When looking for life on other planets, astrobiologists need to be able to define the shared characteristics of living things. Scientists must work together and perform multiple tests to determine whether or not something is alive. The Searching for Life activity from the Lunar Planetary Institute has students question their ideas about what a living thing is and how we define life. Students make observations of alien samples and derive conclusions on whether or not they think there is evidence of life. This activity requires students to collaborate to come up with their own definition of life and to create arguments on whether their samples contain signs of life.

Builds towards NGSS Practices: Engaging in argument from evidence and planning and carrying out investigations


Martians: Reality or Fiction?
The mysteries of the Martian landscape have long been part of the human imagination. With the development of more sophisticated telescopes, the complex geography of Mars was mistaken for canals built by an alien race. These theories about Mars sparked the creativity of many authors and through the years many novels have been written describing Mars and its potential inhabitants. As scientists gather more data about Mars, authors have adapted their fictional Martians to fit our modern knowledge. Science fiction novels can be a great way of combining literary skills with science. Students can listen to or read excerpts from science fiction novels describing organisms that live on Mars. Students then draw their interpretations of those organisms and decide whether that life form could survive on Mars. Class discussion can be on how the environmental conditions of Mars act as constraints for living organisms and how it compares to life on Earth.

Background information on Mars can be NASA’s Mars Exploration website which provides a list of facts about the Martian environment. Another resource is the Solar System Exploration program’s basic facts on Mars. A list of potential science fiction novels is listed below.

Science Fiction Stories on Mars:

  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1897)
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis (1938)
  • Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • Red Planet by Robert Heinlen (1949)
  • Mars by Ben Bova (1993)
  • The Martians by Kim Stanley Robinson (1999)
  • The Martian by Andy Weir (2011)
  • Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson (2017)

Builds towards MS-LS2-1: Organisms, and populations of organisms, are dependent on their environmental interactions both with other living things and with nonliving factors.


Growing Plants in Space
For humans to survive on Mars, they will have to be able to grow their own plants. Plants are essential for producing the oxygen that humans will need to breathe as well as being a source of food. Yet plants are adapted to survive within their ecosystems here on Earth. Botanists are trying to understand how the conditions of space will impact how plants grow, to be prepared for future space exploration. Begin a classroom discussion about the conditions necessary for plants to survive and the limitations of growing plants in places like Mars. NASA provides learning clips explaining the plant research taking place on the International Space Station (ISS), and information on the obstacles of growing plants in space, such as the effects of light and gravity on plant growth.  The Veggie Chamber provides a great opportunity to discuss the development of technology for growing plants in space and how engineers use their knowledge of plant growth in constructing their designs. The NASA blog has animations demonstrating the different possible solutions to the problem of growing plants in space. As an extension, a clip from the movie The Martian showing scenes of growing potatoes on Mars can also be used to start discussion on whether students think food could be grown on Mars. Background information on why potatoes were chosen over other plants is provided.

Builds towards NGSS MS-LS1-5: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how environmental and genetic factors influence the growth of organisms.


Many astrobiologists study organisms here on Earth that live in extreme environments. The Xtreme-o-philes activity engages students on how scientists study bacteria here on Earth to determine what to look for when searching for life on Mars. Students investigate the different types of extremophile organisms here on Earth and make arguments to defend whether or not they think they could be found on Mars.

Builds towards NGSS MS-LS2-1: Organisms, and populations of organisms, are dependent on their environmental interactions both with other living things and with nonliving factors.


Build a Martian
There is an interdependent relationship between the environment of the Earth and the organisms that inhabit it. Organisms are adapted to survive based on the resources that are available to them and the anatomy and physiology of an organism will depend on its environment. Think of a cactus with spines instead of leaves to reduce water loss in the desert environment or a polar bear’s heavy white fur to live in the freezing climate of the Arctic. The activity Mars Critters, designed by NASA’s Destination Mars program, has students use every day materials to design what an organism needs to live on Mars. Students will learn more about the Mars environment and be able to define the environmental factors needed for survival. This activity can be extended to survival in different environments such as other planets or different locations on Earth.

Builds towards MS-LS2-1: Organisms, and populations of organisms, are dependent on their environmental interactions both with other living things and with nonliving factors.


Additional Biology related resources can be found at National Space Biomedical Research Institute website.


Images from Noun Project Created by Wireform, Eucalyp, Symbolon, iconsphere, Elves Sousa, andriwidodo


  • Energy
  • Magnetism
  • Newton’s Laws of Motion
  • Wavelength and Frequency
  • Electromagnetic spectrum
  • Gravitational forces
  • Magnetism
  • Reflection and Absorption

Activity suggestions


Using the Electromagnetic Spectrum to Uncover the Universe
Celestial bodies, like stars or supernovas, emit radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. Therefore, scientists and engineers have designed many instruments to capture this data to gain a better understanding of the universe. The most common instrument is an optical telescope which uses the visual portion of the light spectrum, the part of the spectrum we can see, to give us an image of the universe. Yet, there is much more data that can be collected that we can’t see with our eyes.  Therefore, scientists design instruments that can “see” other wavelengths of light. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is a telescope designed to detect X-ray emissions from hot regions of the universe. It collects X-rays to create pictures of exploding stars or galaxy collisions and has found black holes across the universe. The site provides background information about how scientists use X-rays to study the universe and how X-ray telescopes differ from optical telescopes. The “Using the Electromagnetic Spectrum to Explore the Universe” activity asks students to identify an object in the universe and how they would design a tool to study it based on what wavelengths of light it emits. This activity provides students with real world uses and applications of studying light and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Builds towards NGSS MS-PS4-2: Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.


Remote Sensing Ice on Mars
The Phoenix Mars lander, a collaboration between the University of Arizona and NASA, was sent to Mars in 2010 to increase our understanding of the polar regions of Mars and to search for signs of water. The Phoenix Mars Mission provides educational resources pertaining to this mission. The Remote Sensing Ice on Mars activity has students act as scientists by using different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum to analyze the polar ice caps and look for the presence of water. Students will learn how the properties of light affect the types of data scientists collect and why they choose particular wavelengths of light for different tasks. Students will analyze data from different images of Mars using visible light, infrared, or gamma rays to make predictions of the composition of the ice caps. Teacher guides, slides, and extension activities are provided.

Builds towards NGSS MS-PS4-2: Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.


Modeling Gravitational Waves
A major breakthrough in understanding the nature of gravity was uncovered in 2015 by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), a collaboration of scientists at Cal Tech and MIT universities. The LIGO scientists were studying a pair of colliding black holes. Based on Einstein’s formula, E=mc2, some of the mass of the black hole should be converted into energy that is then transmitted through gravitational waves. LIGO was designed to test this theory. Scientists were able to confirm this part of Einstein’s theory of relativity. NASA provides a demonstration, Dropping in with Gravitational Waves, that can help make this ground-breaking science more accessible to students and let teachers bring current research into the classroom.

Builds towards MS-PS4-2: Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.


Ion Propulsion: From Science Fiction to Science Fact
The Star Wars universe is filled with fighter planes propelled with twin ion engines. While Darth Vader flew one in A New Hope in the 1970s, today these types of engines are being used to power real spacecraft. The first spacecraft using ion propulsion thrusters was Deep Space 1, whose goal was to study asteroids and comets. Today ion propulsion systems are being used by the DAWN mission to study proto-planets within the asteroid belt. The DAWN mission website contains information on how ion propulsion works and how it is being used to move spacecraft. The Ion Propulsion System is a great way to introduce topics on ions, how charges interact, plasmas, and relative motion. While much of the ion propulsion technology is new, the way it moves spacecraft can be described with classical physics. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory provides an excellent video on how ion propulsion works and an activity expanding on students’ knowledge of Newton’s Laws of Motion. Students learn how to use spreadsheets to determine the distance it will take for the DAWN spacecraft to achieve its ideal acceleration and velocity as it travels through space.

Builds to MS-PS3-1: Construct and interpret graphical displays of data to describe the relationships of kinetic energy to the mass of an object and to the speed of an object.


How Do Atmospheres Change Over Time? The Role of Magnetosphere and Solar Wind
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) is a spacecraft orbiting Mars to study its atmosphere. Its goal is to understand why Mars’ atmosphere disappeared. A major difference between Earth and Mars is the lack of magnetic field, or magnetosphere. The magnetic field protects Earth from radiation and helps divert solar winds emanating from the Sun. Solar wind consists of high energy particles that are sent out of the Sun into the solar system. Without a magnetic field, Mars cannot protect its atmosphere and it is literally “blown away” by the solar winds. MAVEN scientists provide education activities for students including an activity to model how the magnetosphere protects the atmosphere of Earth and how magnetic fields exert forces on particles. The activity includes teacher and student worksheets. More background and activities on magnetism and solar activity can be found here from the Stanford Solar Center.

Builds towards NGSS MS-PS2-5: Conduct an investigation and evaluate the experimental design to provide evidence that fields exist between objects exerting forces on each other even though the objects are not in contact.


Exploring the Milky Way
The Exploring the Milky Way lesson teaches students about astronomical distances of the planets and stars. Students complete unit conversions and use graphing to understand the locations of stars in the Milky Way. Students will calculate averages and use scientific notation in representing large numbers.



Images from Noun Project Created by Ben Davis, Kokota, omar vargas, Mixim Kulikov, Kirsh, Iconika, Creative Mania, throwaway icons, Arthur Shlain, Agni


Activity suggestions


Exploring Stars
Learn how scientists study stars using math in the Exploring Stars in the Milky Way lesson plan. This group of lessons demonstrates how scientists calculate the number of stars in the Milky Way and how to classify stars based on their brightness and temperatures. Students learn how to do calculations with large numbers, use decimals, understand positive and negative numbers, and compute quotients and remainders.


Mars Math
The Mars Math collection contains short activities arranged by grade level that relate math to the study of Mars. The activities cover a variety of topics including: studying the size of planets, exploring Mars with rovers, and measuring craters. Activities cover a variety of math concepts including: fractions, decimals, scientific notation, proportions, and graphing data.


Solar System Math
This NASA Explorer Schools Pre-Algebra Unit contains a lesson plan to teach how parts of the solar system relate to each other using math. Students learn unit conversion in measuring the distances between planets and use fractions to understand the relative sizes of the planets to each other. This lesson plan also includes building a model of the solar system where students create a scale, calculate distances, and then graph their results. A teacher key is available.


Space Math
NASA’s Space Math website contains numerous activities for the middle school math curriculum relating to space and using real data. Activities such as Exploring Your Weight Across the Solar System and Visiting the Planets at the Speed of Light! have students use their knowledge of proportions and units. Students work with timelines and put objects in order based on their age and distance in the activity The Most Distant Objects in the Visible Universe. Introduce students to what solar storms are using fractions and percentages in the Solar Storms activity.


Images from Noun Project Created by Creative Mania, throwaway icons, Arthur Shlain, Agni

GRADE LEVEL  Grades 6, 7, and 8

FOCUS Engineering, solar system, and human space exploration

TIME 30-60 minutes

MS-ETS1  Engineering Design

Additional classroom connections + activities
For earth, life and physical science teachers

Background information
Background information & FAQs for students

Requesting a visit

The explorer lab will serve District of Columbia Public Schools middle schools in 2017/18 our pilot year. We hope to serve more than 5,000 DC students during the program’s first year.

DCPS middle school teachers who attend one of our Mars Discovery Program professional development workshops in August may request to have the explorer lab come to their school during their session.