Teaching STEM with Various Design Challenges

Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars
Academy Students Design Food Supply for Mission to Mars

Recently at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School, students delved some major topics by doing engineering design challenges: A mission to Mars, spacesuits, and bridges. Engineering design is one of the Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so incorporating engineering design projects into the curriculum is one way to meet the standards – and obviously a great way to help students learn how to think critically and solve problems.

For the first topic, we studied how NASA, SpaceX, and Mars One are all looking at missions to Mars. We then held a class debate on the pros and cons of going to Mars. We had studied aircrew life support systems a few weeks ago, so now we focused on the major life support systems required on a manned mission to Mars. With all of these systems, we also looked at how they protect and provide support at the cellular and human body system level. Finally, the students designed specific life support systems for the trip to Mars and for surviving on Mars. Each student crew (group of 4 students) had a different aspect of the challenge. Their designs were presented in Powerpoint presentations to the class, and they are on display in the academy. One presentation about supplying food for a mission to Mars, Yum, is featured in the picture here.

The second topic was all about spacesuits. We have been studying the physiology of aviation and of space, and this week’s focus was on the life support systems required by astronauts, especially spacesuits. The students started with a web quest on spacesuits – NASA provides outstanding interactive sites: 1) This one deals with spacesuit evolution over NASA’s history, and 2) this one shows a virtual spacesuit which can be examined piece-by-piece. Then I gave a demonstration with a vacuum bell jar how a vacuum may affect the human body. We saw how water boils at room temperature in a vacuum and how a marshmallow “Peep” expands in a vacuum, simulating the blood and gas pockets in the human body. Whenever I give such demonstrations, the students have to first hypothesize what they expect to happen, then they observe what actually happens, then they discuss the results and draw conclusions. They write this up in their science notebooks for me to grade later. Finally, the students did an engineering design challenge to make a spacesuit for a Peep. Each student crew got a small bag of materials and a Peep. They had to make the spacesuit so that the Peep would not expand and suffer in the vacuum bell jar, simulating the vacuum of space. Only one crew was successful the first time, while the rest had catastrophic failures. However, in the redesigns, most crews succeeded in protecting their Peeps. We concluded with a look at actual spacesuit design, and the students learned how spacesuits have a strong outer layer to contain the astronaut from expanding. The winning designs for the Peep challenge used this principle. Here are photos of the students making the spacesuits:


The final design challenge was our bridge challenge, mentioned in the previous post – this week we finally got to test the final designs. Here is Crew 5 and their winning design holding ten kilograms without breaking as it spans a 35-centimeter gap:

Crew 5's Bridge Holding 10 Kilograms

Here are other crews and their bridge designs that held from 5 to 8 kilograms before failing:


Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

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