by David Seidel
David Seidel manages JPL's K-12 education program. Before joining JPL he taught high school astronomy and physical science and ran a planetarium.
Marsbound! Is a visual, easy-to-download-and-play board game that students really enjoy. I've used this in classrooms across the country and it takes very little prep time. The goal is to have student teams design a mission to Mars. Students come up with science goals, decide what is feasible with the money they are allotted, launch their mission and deal with any challenges - or successes - that may arise. All this is done in the low-tech, accessible game environment.
What's particularly nifty is that this activity simulates real situations experienced by NASA scientists and engineers. Teams need to keep a check on costs while deciding the best strategy for succeeding in their mission. They must balance budget costs with the weight of their spacecraft and energy use of selected instruments. Students often want to go more than one round so mix it up by adding a handicap of your own in bonus rounds - perhaps a solar flare knocks out communications or the spacecraft unexpectedly goes into safe mode, meaning you need to pay for more engineering staff to solve the problem.
Student ability level:
Students need to be able to add and subtract fractions, and multiply and divide whole numbers.
Make sure you use a color printer for the game board and cards. For best results when printing the game, use a large-format printer.
You can find Marsbound! at http://marsed.asu.edu/lesson_plans/marsbound .