Summer Science Camp: Mars Challenge

In rural Florida where I work as a librarian, many kids have trouble accessing science education. Schools are struggling. A weaker school system also means we have a large group of students who are homeschooled or who attend the Florida Virtual School, decreasing opportunities for hands-on science education in a more academic setting. In 2012, I offered Summer Science Camp for the first time. Held at the public library the week before the start of the school year, this 4 day camp offered kids age 6-12 the chance to participate in group science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities. Parents were encouraged to join in and many enthusiastically participated.

On offer were activities in computer programming, microscopes, and structural engineering, but I think the kids’ favorite was our Mars Challenge. While we were lucky to be able to hold this camp at the same time as the launch of the Curiosity rover in August 2012, it’s a great free activity for libraries, schools and parents any time of year. Since my library is in a fiscally constrained rural county, I needed to focus on activities that included publicly available teaching materials and little to no budget.


Each of my Summer Science Camp lessons started with a brief presentation that helped prepare kids to think about the challenge ahead. As you’ll see from the embedded PowerPoint, the lectures have a strong teaching/speaking component, supported by pictures and short videos. This is a good way to help younger kids engage with a PowerPoint presentation. After the jump, see a brief slide-by-slide description of the kinds of things that I talked about. For this lesson to hold the kids’ attention, the speaker should move quickly, use his or her own words, and spend less than a minute on each slide. Battledecks veterans should be familiar with this speaker-centered presentation style.

Introduction: Ask the students what they know about the Mars Curiosity rover. What is its mission? Where did it come from? Why are people so interested in Mars?

  1. One of the first pictures taken by Curiosity after landing on Mars. The image is blurry because the lens cap is still on! The mountain ahead is Curiosity’s goal.
  2. The same image in context, showing Curiosity’s location on Mars (in case you’re wondering, the mark on the top left is not a bird, but a brad). With these images we’re putting kids in the drivers’ seat of the most advanced rover ever built.
  3. Getting Curiosity to Mars wasn’t easy. It required thousands of people to work together around the world. It cost billions of dollars. This is an image of Curiosity’s launch in November 2012. It took nine months for the rocket to get to Mars.
  4. Video Slide. The way Curiosity landed on Mars was very complicated and special. We had never used a sky crane to land things on Mars before, and nobody was sure it was going to work. This slide links to NASA’s excellent (& thrilling) “Seven Minutes of Terror” video which explains each step of the sky crane’s operation. This video has some engineering vocabulary, but even the younger kids in the group were riveted.
  5. Images of what Mars is like–a rocky world with a thin atmosphere. It’s a lot like Earth, but faces challenges like extreme temperatures, radiation and low gravity. No wonder the landing sequence is so difficult!
  6. Video Slide. Click the image to enter the control room at the time of Curiosity’s landing. The kids will enjoy clapping and cheering as each part of the landing sequence completes. Remind the kids of the hard work and teamwork it takes to do something so challenging.
  7. Here we start a new section on the specific challenges of reaching Mars.
  8. The first problem is “Getting There.”
  9. There are only certain times of year when Mars and Earth line up with each other. If you miss a launch window, you have to wait for years. This actually happened with Curiosity, which missed its first launch window.
  10. The next challenge is “Landing Safely.” Mars rovers are big and heavy. Engineers have to find a way to get them to the surface without breaking the delicate scientific equipment inside.
  11. Video Slide. One approach is to wrap the rover in huge air bags, so it bounces onto the surface. Click the image on the left to see a one-minute video on landing challenges.
  12. Another alternative: sky crane!
  13. An actual image of a Mars rover’s parachute.
  14. Another engineering challenge: “Calling Home.” Mars is millions of miles away, so how can we control and monitor the rover from Earth?
  15. A rover would need satellite dishes and other specialized equipment to get messages to and from Earth.
  16. Challenge: “Staying Alive.” There are no mechanics or batteries on Mars. If something breaks, it stays broken. So Mars rovers have to be durable and strong. They have to find ways to generate their own power.
  17. This is the Spirit rover. It was one of the first rovers sent to Mars. We lost contact with it in 2010. We don’t know what happened to it–maybe its solar panels got dusty, or something broke.
  18. This rover, Opportunity, went to Mars in 2004. It’s solar-powered and still sending messages home after almost 10 years!
  19. Special wheels that don’t need air. A side-by-side comparison of Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity’s wheels. We’re sending bigger and bigger things to Mars.
  20. Three model rovers together, with NASA scientists.
  21. Discussion: Why should we go to Mars?
  22. (Includes slides 22-25). Now it’s time for the kids to be the engineers (see the activity below). These slides include some different engineering models and diagrams as examples.


This activity requires access to paper and drawing/coloring supplies for each student or group.

Students were asked to split up in to groups of 1-3. Each “engineering group” was given a list of missions (analyze the soil, search for microscopic life, prepare for human colonization, etc), and a list of challenges (landing, communication, durability, etc.) and a blank sheet of paper. Kids were asked to choose a “bold” name for their rover and select one mission and one challenge from the list. They had 30 minutes to design a rover that could face its mission and challenge. Here are the results:

To see how the kids incorporated the lesson, look for solar panels, spare tires, sky cranes, and airbags.

“Mars Challenge” was designed to engage the kids’ listening, creativity, teamwork and problem-solving skills. It was also an opportunity to get kids to think about how engineering actually works, and to think about careers in engineering and aerospace. The kids who attended had different abilities and different levels of science knowledge/interest, but all of them enthusiastically completed this assignment. This allowed kids who were interested in science to participate in a STEM activity that was open-ended, interdisciplinary and collaborative.

Bottom Line

“After this camp, our kids spent all afternoon designing Mars rovers at home.” -Parent S.

Questions about Summer Science Camp or the “Mars Challenge?” Email me.