9780804189354By Karen Kingrea, STEM Director at Immaculata Catholic School

Growing up outside Houston, Texas in the ’60s and ’70s, it is no surprise that I developed a love of space exploration and NASA. During my thirty-five years in education, I have furthered this passion whenever possible by attending NASA workshops and conference sessions across the country. Thus, it was with great excitement that I read The Martian by Andy Weir last summer. The book was everything I hoped it would be and more. My only regret was that it was not appropriate for my middle school students to read. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to learn that a classroom edition of The Martian exists. After seeing the movie as well, I knew that Mars would be our theme for the 2016–2017 school year.

I am currently in my second year as the STEM Director at Immaculata Catholic School, a PK through 8 school in Durham, North Carolina. We are in the process of implementing a STEM program in the middle school with the goal of becoming STEM certified in the very near future. STEM projects and practices are an integral part of every middle school classroom at ICS. Students and teachers follow the Engineering Design Process to work collaboratively across the curriculum. In addition, seventy-five minutes each week are set aside for STEM Time. This is a time when all middle school students and teachers work in teams on a long-term project centered on our theme for the year. It is my job to determine the theme and plan the project, and I decided that we would design and construct a Martian habitat. Being a PK–8 school affords us a unique opportunity to share and celebrate the projects done by the middle school students with the elementary school students. Table-top models would not create the excitement I wanted. Instead, I wanted to construct a habitat big enough for students to walk through.

I am blessed to be part of a middle school faculty who are always willing to try new things. When I shared the Mars Project with them during in-service days prior to the beginning of the school year, they were excited to get started. The basic plan was to create teams consisting of ten to twelve sixth through eighth grade students. Each teacher would have the responsibility of facilitating one or two teams. Each team would be assigned a different module of the habitat to research, design and construct. The project would culminate with a full-day event in April during which middle school students would lead tours of their individual modules for elementary students, teachers, parents, and other visitors. During the summer, I spent countless hours preparing for this project so the information I shared went far beyond the basic plan. There would be ten 12x5x5 modules with frames constructed of ½” PVC pipe and covered with plastic sheeting.

The modules would be:

  • Crew Quarters
  • Exercise and Recreation
  • Galley
  • General Science
  • Horticulture
  • Power Plant
  • Environmental Control and Life Support
  • Medical
  • Storage
  • Communications

In addition, there would be teams responsible for:

  • Astronaut Transport
  • Drones and Remote Operated Vehicles
  • Airlocks and Public Relations

Teachers chose modules to facilitate, were given project parameters and background information, and 140 students were divided into teams.

Each team member was assigned a specific job for which they were responsible when we met each week.

  • Public Relations Officer: weekly blogging
  • Recorder: documenting team’s progress
  • Architect: generate diagrams/drawings
  • Researcher: collect information
  • Accountant: document/track expenditures
  • Engineer: oversee construction
  • Materials Manager: collect/organize supplies
  • Spokesperson: prepare script for tour in April/determine presentation schedules
  • Specialist: responsible for specific needs determined by the team

Our Technology Director created a project website using Weebly. This site served as a place where students could access any information or resources needed, where teams could record their progress, and as a place to showcase our work as we progressed throughout the year. I used the Resources section of the website to provide teams with links to articles and websites for research and documents needed.

martian6Students in science class identify Mars landforms using NASA lithographs

I’m privileged to have a working relationship with NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, which has been ongoing for the past eight years. I have attended workshops and events there, brought both teachers and students to visit, and have presented at NASA workshops and events in the area. To give the teachers a working knowledge of Mars and current and future exploration, I arranged a workshop at LRC. The education specialists there designed two days of speakers, tours, and activities centered on our Mars Project with the highlight being a tour of the inflatable habitat facility. In February, we were able to share the Langley habitat facility with our middle school students through a virtual tour and question and answer session with the scientists there. In addition, NASA Ambassadors presented to students and faculty on two occasions to introduce the project, highlighting Mars and what it will take to put man on the planet.

NASA resources were used in various classrooms to supplement STEM Time:

  • Language Arts: students read articles pertaining to the topic. Students in sixth grade read the novel Mars: You Decide How to Survive. Seventh grade read Enders Game and eighth grade read the Classroom Edition of The Martian
  • Math: students explored Mars through various problem-based learning activities and design challenges including spacesuits and parachute systems
  • Science: students used NASA lithographs to explore surface features on the planet and learned about past and present missions
  • Social Studies: students explored the history of space exploration
  • Tech and Engineering: students built landers and rovers

The first few weeks of the project were spent researching, collecting data and planning. Students utilized the resources provided on the website as well as others they found. Some of the most popular sites were those inspired by The Martian. From articles on NASA technology and The Martian, to images and virtual tours of the habitat, these resources truly helped the students visualize what would be needed to survive on the planet. I often heard them reference information and events from the book. It was almost like Mark Watney was an additional member of their teams. With plans in place, teams were ready to begin construction. Students were encouraged to utilize recycled materials whenever possible so with stock piles of cardboard, Styrofoam, wood and duct tape, the module components began to take shape. Materials Managers were responsible for submitting lists of needed materials each week which led to regular weekend visits to Habitat for Humanity, the Goodwill store, Walmart and a local refuse store called the Scrap Exchange, a student favorite after I took members from each team shopping for supplies there. During weekly STEM Time, my job was to help students coming to the STEM Lab find materials and solve construction issues as well as to monitor student tool usage. It was so exciting to see students, both boys and girls, using hand saws and power drills with increasing ease and confidence as each week passed.

By February, modules were really beginning to take shape. Teams were finalizing components and working on tour presentations. The PR team had completed one movie-style trailer which was sent to teachers and parents to update everyone on our progress. They were also designing the habitat model using TinkerCAD which would then be created using a 3D Printer. The Crew Quarters team was completing the preparation of the PVC for the geodome.

martian1The crew quarters inside the geodome

In March, teams were ready to measure and cut the PVC so they could construct the module frame. It was decided that we would use one STEM Time for each team to set-up their module and components for a “Show and Tell.” Administration, any teachers available, and I visited each classroom to see what the teams had accomplished and offer suggestions for improvements. Also in March, the elementary faculty and students celebrated Mars Month. Each week, students explored some aspect of the red planet such as “Where is Mars?”; “What’s Mars Like?”; and “How Do We Get to Mars?” Students read books on Mars, did activities and projects, created artwork, ate Mars snacks, and decorated their classroom doors. This created interest and excitement prior to the big Mars event in April.

As the Mars Day event approached, everything was in place. Tours would be presented by teams of three for each module in one hour shifts. The other students would rotate through different activities hosted by the middle school teachers. From 9:00 am to 2:00 p.m., with an hour break for lunch, students would rotate through the following:

  1. Module tour: present module to visitors
  2. National Geographic Mars: watch episode two
  3. Team-building games
  4. Door judging/cake pops: judge the elementary door decorations/make Mars cake pops for desert
  5. Recess

The PR team completed and shared two other videos advertising the project. E-vites went out to STEM partners, diocesan administration, other schools in the diocese, and the media. We had to change the location of the event from everything being indoors, to some being outdoors due to a scheduling issue. We were ready and excited for the big day.

The morning of the event was bright, warm, and breezy. The introductory video, habitat model, geodome, astronaut transport, ROVs, and airlocks were set up in the gym. The other nine modules were set up in the parking lot between the buildings. It was immediately apparent that the breeze was going to present a problem for the modules outside as their covering was thin plastic tablecloths. Students had to problem solve and engineer solutions to keep their module and the components within stable. With some creative thinking and a lot of duct tape, we were ready for the tours to begin on time.

The elementary visited by grade level, two classes at a time, parents and others visited at their leisure. The tour began on the stage where visitors watched a four-minute video created by the PR team. They then visited the model to see how the habitat would look with all modules together, and proceeded to visit the other modules both inside and outside. The tour lasted approximately one hour. Students rotated to new stations on the hour and all was going well until the wind began to pick up.

martian4Elementary students touring on Mars Day

At noon, all middle school students and faculty gathered in the Fellowship Hall for lunch and a thirty-minute break. After about twenty minutes, I was informed that, without students to help support them, most of the modules outside had been blown over. When we looked outside, it was as if a tornado had blown through; many of the frames were down, the covers ripped, and the components scattered. Most of the teachers were just standing around staring, unsure of what to do. We still had afternoon tours. Talk of cancelling was going around when one teacher suggested we move everything into the Fellowship Hall. Having only thirty minutes, it seemed an impossible task. But the students weren’t about to be defeated by a little Martian dust storm, as they called it. I heard “We got this, Ms. Kingrea,” and before I knew it, they were all working together moving everything inside, reconstructing the frames, and salvaging as much of the components possible.

The coverings were not salvageable but the students were determined to have the afternoon tours. Students with modules in the gym helped teams that needed it. Within thirty minutes, 137 middle school students had picked up the destroyed modules and reconstructed them indoors. We were ready for the afternoon tours, only five minutes behind schedule. The students joked that Mark Watney would have been proud. The event concluded later that day with clean-up in record time and both students and teachers extremely proud of what they accomplished, not only that day, but throughout the year.

In over three decades of teaching, the Mars Project was my most ambitious and most rewarding endeavor. The fact that it all began with my reading The Martian speaks to how powerful the effect of a novel can be. Every aspect of the book permeated all we did from the project idea itself, to interest created when students read the novel, to the “never give up” lessons learned from the lead character. Immaculata’s trip to Mars took eight months to complete paralleling the trip astronauts will make in the near future. The lesson learned will last a lifetime.

martian7Middle school teachers touring the inflatable habitats at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia