Sometimes Project Based Learning is planned in advance, sometimes it is planned on the fly. And sometimes students demand it. Our fourth grade team had just completed an all-consuming PBL unit around Colorado ghost towns. We were exhausted and feeling a little let down the week after the project. Post-holiday blues were settling over the class.

As the elementary STEM teacher I talked with the fourth grade team about their upcoming plans. They were about to tackle their standards on space science, but were going to take a more traditional approach. We decided to touch base later in the year about another collaborative project. 

Day 2 of their unit. That’s when it happened. Students beginning to learn about our solar system started saying things like, “This feels like a PBL project” and asking questions like, “So, what are we going to do with this?” At about the same time, the parents of a fourth grade student contacted the classroom teacher. They were both engineers at Lockheed Martin working with NASA on the Orion Mission to Mars. Another PBL unit was born. 

MarsPlanning a PBL Unit on the Fly

We decided to meet with our parent engineers and were blown away with their willingness to work with us and our students. We started thinking big. We were able to connect with Rob Chambers, Director of Strategy and Planning for Human Spaceflight at Lockheed Martin. He graciously cleared time in his schedule to meet with our students via video conference. 

Our kickoff was ready. We gathered all 76 students to meet Mr. Chambers. During our conference, he challenged students to choose one of five design challenges Lockheed Martin and NASA are working on currently. We were off and running. 

Planning as you go is challenging, but it does add a sense of urgency and excitement.  If it weren’t for the collaboration and commitment of the teachers involved it would never be possible. We met and divvied up the responsibilities. The first decision we made was that research would begin individually based on interest in a design challenge. The resources we found for research were rich in content, but also high in reading level and background knowledge. Having individuals sift through the content was more than most students could handle. We needed to allow them to work together to read, comprehend, and record relevant information. 

a student at at computer working on a project

Highly Engaged Students

You could feel the creativity and excitement rise. Students were talking about extracting mercury from the Mars soil so it would be safe to grow human food, exploring which plants grow quickly and produce great amounts of oxygen, and discovering ways of altering Mars’ atmosphere to produce breathable oxygen. At this point, students were  connecting with students within the same design challenge. One afternoon, a group of students asked if they could arrange time to meet students in different design challenges, “All our problems are interconnected and we think they probably know things that could help us.” What a powerful moment. Students were motivated and driven to reach beyond. They had become global communicators and collaborators. We of course said, “Yes!”

Later that same week, students moved to the “build a model” portion of the unit. Typically, this took place at the end of the school day and appeared chaotic. A quick walk around the room, however, showed every student engaged in designing and building models such as Mars habitats, space capsules, and greenhouses. As the end of the day approached, the teacher asked students to pause their construction and clean up. She asked again. And again. Finally, a few minutes after the final bell, she said, “You guys really do have to go home.” These students weren’t at school anymore. They were engineers at Lockheed Martin working to send real humans on a never before accomplished mission. They were more than engaged, they were empowered.

Our most exciting moment was a video conference with Tony Antonelli, a NASA Astronaut. Mr. Antonelli agreed to conference live with our students and give them background information about the mission. There is nothing better than a first-hand source. Commander Antonelli answered questions and gave personal accounts of life in space. This project was real.

Final Presentations & Reflections

The last part of our journey was in sight and required endurance. Students compiled their information into a presentation. “NASA engineers,” aka parents and teachers, were prepared to be panelists and complete rubrics for each presentation. It was the end of a long project and the end of the school year. We were all exhausted, but knew students needed an authentic end to all their hard work. They blew us away. The research, the innovative ideas they added to solutions that NASA and Lockheed Martin are exploring were sound and made us realize that these kids, these 10 year olds, really would be the first humans on Mars. Teachers compiled the comments and results from the panelists and met with each group to reflect on the process and final product. I can honestly say that I learned just as much as our students. 

Whether here on Earth or journeying to Mars, I learned it is the connections we form that make the difference. Without relying on our fellow humans we will not survive. Not on Mars. Not on Earth. The human need for companionship, collaboration, communication, adventure, creativity, and innovation are intensified when faced with an extreme environment like Mars, but these things are inherent to us as humans on Earth. 

This PBL unit was a living, breathing entity because of the people who came together. Teaching can be isolating by nature or choice, but innovation, creativity, and exploration happen only with collaboration. I was truly blessed to be a part of this project and work with an amazing team of teachers, parents, engineers, astronauts, and of course, students. That’s what PBL does: Leaves us with a sense of accomplishment and wonder. Where will it take us next?


Credit for this work is due to:  Sarah Block (4th grade teacher), Brynn O’Connell (4th grade teacher), Erica Young (4th grade teacher), Beth Ramey (Teacher Librarian), Heather Swanson (Lockheed Martin), Todd Sullivan (Lockheed Martin), Sally Hensley (principal)

Keely Moran, Elementary STEM Teacher, Crested Butte Community School, Colorado