Three generations of Mars rovers

Several examples of Mars pasta rovers

A Mars pasta rover under construction

Pasta rover surface

Engingeering design process diagram


Engineering in the Classroom

This activity is part of our Engineering in the Classroom tool for educators! Click to learn more about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for engineering, make connections to NASA and discover more standards-aligned activities.

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Overview

Using only pasta and glue, students must design a rover that will travel down a one-meter ramp and then travel an additional one meter on a smooth, flat surface. Students use the same engineering design process that JPL engineers use to improve their designs.

Materials

Management

Time Management

  • 45-60 minutes to build

  • 5 minutes per group to test (basic)

  • 30 minutes per group to gather data (extension)

Room Setup and Safety

  • Set up the ramp before students arrive. If using a table, use cardboard and duct tape to smooth the transition to the floor.

  • If using cold-melt glue guns, be sure to follow proper safety guidelines for their classroom use.

  • Plug glue guns in around the room (for older students) and set them on scrap cardboard to manage drips.

  • For younger students, an adult should manage the glue gun. Students may request glue be applied at specific points on their rover when they are ready.

Materials Management

  • Consider giving each team a pasta budget: Either limit their access to the pasta by predetermining their pasta supply or give each team a financial budget and charge them for each piece of pasta they use for their rover.

  • Pasta wheels are sometimes difficult to locate or, when found, are not particularly round. In such cases, substitute round, disk-shaped candy mints, but don't use sticky fruit flavors.

Background

The Mars rovers Spirit, Curiosity and Opportunity have collectively driven over 35 miles on Mars. Some days a rover may drive less than one meter, or not at all. Other days may see the rover drive over 100 meters. The engineers who plan the drives, called Rover Planners, must define their criteria for success–what the rover must do for the drive to be considered a success. They must also take into consideration the constraints that may limit the rover’s ability to successfully complete a drive. What obstacles are in the way? Is there a slope along the way? Is it too steep for the rover to safely drive? Does the terrain change part way through the drive?

Some of these things depend on which part of Mars the rover is driving through. Some are based on how the rover was built. Like Rover Planners, students in this activity will have to define what a successful drive will look like and identify the limiting factors they will face on their drive.


Vocabulary

  • Rovers - machines that drive, either by human or robotic control, on planetary surfaces.

Procedures

  1. Act as a facilitator in the Activity.  Ask questions, provide guidance regarding materials and the task.  Don't give answers or lead them towards a successful rover design.  Challenge them to be articulate in their spoken and written answers.
  2. Introduce the activity by showing images of NASA rovers.
  3. Ask students to examine rover images and identify the main parts of a rover (e.g., wheels, body, science instruments, axles, suspension, cameras, etc.).
  4. Tell students that rovers are expensive to build and require careful engineering, often incorporating new technologies.
  5. Challenge students, in groups of two to four, to build a rover that will travel down a one-meter ramp (to gain speed) and continue to travel on a smooth surface at least one additional meter.
  6. Inform students that they may only use pasta and glue, and they will have to stay within a budget of $50,000,000 for supplies. Fortunately, glue is considered an incidental expense and will not be billed.
  7. After displaying the types of pasta available, challenge students to brainstorm ideas and sketch concepts for their pasta rovers on paper.
  8. After students have workable concepts, allow building to ensue. Note: Some pasta will break or not work out as students expect. Rover cost could be based on total pasta (used or wasted) or on pasta used in the final product as an option.
  9. Encourage each team to name their rover. 
  10. As each team prepares to run their rover, encourage them to explain the design of their rover and the intent of the design.
  11. Run one rover at a time by having the team place their rover at the top of the ramp and letting it go without pushing it. 
  12. Mark distance traveled by each rover on the flat surface with masking tape and the team's rover name.
  13. As time allows, encourage students to engage in the iterative design process by building a second rover, improving on the design and performance of their first rover. Consider increasing the overall budget to encourage creativity.

Discussion

After all the teams have run their rovers, engage students in discussing the various designs and functionality.  Address the competitiveness that can naturally result, and ask them about how different engineering teams might collaborate on their design and results.

Assessment

Rovers that travel the full meter on a flat surface have achieved the full goal of the assignment. Consider involving students in developing assessment guidelines, or rubric, for the best performing rovers.  Students could plan a re-design of the pasta rover as a written assignment.

Extensions

  1. Hand out the pasta rover data sheet to each team. 

  2. Using stop watches, have students measure the time (t) a rover is in transit and measure the distance (d) the rover travels.

  3. Repeat step 2 at least three times per rover and record the results on the data sheet. If time allows, students can create a class data sheet for rover comparisons.

  4. Compute the rover’s rate (r) of travel for each trial and its average rate of travel: d=rt, so r=d/t.

  5. If distance is measured in centimeters and time in seconds, rate will be in cm/sec, which is a bit abstract to some students. Have them compute their rate in miles per hour. Depending on their math level, they may use dimensional analysis to do this or use the conversion 1 cm/s = 0.0223693629 mph.

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