Animation showing the Curiosity rover driving on Mars

Overview

In this board-game lesson, students play the roles of a Mars rover, scientist and engineer to make exploration decisions and accomplish science goals. Students learn to write basic command sequences, which lay the groundwork for developing computer programming skills.

Materials

Management

  • Organize students into teams of three to four to fulfill the roles of a Mars rover, scientist and engineer. For four-person teams, add an extra scientist or engineer.
  • Print out the game board and tape the pieces together, side-by-side, as shown below:
  • Photo of the two pages from the game board document taped together side by side

    Assemble the game board as shown here. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

  • 3D-printed rovers are nice to have, but any small car or game piece can be used instead.
  • If working with a small group instead of a large class, consider laying out a life-size game board and having the student playing the role of the Mars rover walk the course on command from the scientist and engineer.
  • Designate an area of the classroom as Mars. Set up this area with computers or tablets for the students playing the role of the Mars rover to explore while the science and engineering team is designing their command sequence.

Background

Driving a rover on Mars isn’t easy, especially because drivers have to control rovers all the way from Earth. Depending on where the planets are in their orbits, Mars can be as close to Earth as 54.6 million kilometers or as far as 401 million kilometers. This means the signal from Earth can take as little as 3 minutes to get to Mars or as long as 22 minutes. Mars rovers are not operated by a joystick-like a remote-controlled car. Instead, several times each week, rover drivers on Earth decide what they want a rover to do and computer scientists send commands to the rover by way of NASA’s Deep Space Network. These commands are called sequences and are written in a special sequencing language that was created at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Finding the best driving route for a Mars rover isn't as easy as turning on a navigation app. Scientists must study the region using images of the surface from the rover and orbiters and make decisions about what to investigate next. The terrain might be smooth, but often it is littered with boulders, sandy regions or craters that must be carefully navigated. Scientists decide which locations, features and rocks they’d like the rover to investigate with its robotic arm and onboard instruments. Scientists, engineers and computer scientists work together to decide on the command sequences that will get the job done.

In this board game, students simulate the decision-making and command-sequencing process scientists, engineers and computer scientists engage in to explore Mars.

Procedures

  1. Ask students to say what they know about Mars. Some details they might include are: “It’s known as the Red Planet,” “It is far away,” and “We have robots on the surface.”
  2. Ask students to explain what they know about the rovers on Mars, such as how many rovers are currently operating on the surface (one, Curiosity) and what they are doing there (driving around, learning about the geology of Mars, its past and current climate, and whether the planet could have ever supported life).
  3. Show students the Curiosity overview video:

    This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

  4. Ask students how Curiosity knows where to drive. For the answer, show students the video:

    Where's the driver's seat for a Mars rover? Millions of miles away, back on Earth! Learn more in this 60-second video. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

  5. Show students the following video to explain some of what Curiosity is doing on Mars:

    Curiosity mission project scientist Ashwin Vasavada gives a tour of the rover's location in the “clay unit,” as well as other areas scientists are excited to visit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

  6. Show students the following video of NASA's Mars 2020 rover being built:

    See the Mars 2020 rover quite literally coming together inside a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

  7. Have students explore NASA’s Experience Curiosity interactive using computers or tablets, or navigate the experience together.
  8. Explain to students that they are going to simulate sending commands to a rover on Mars.
  9. Divide the class up into teams of three to four.
  10. Provide each group with a copy of the game board, five differently-colored flat marbles, the 3D-printed Curiosity rover (or small model car), and a copy of the student worksheet.
  11. Have the class read the game rules from the student worksheet together. The goal of the game is to conduct as much science as possible by collecting rock samples while staying within the following engineering constraints:

    • Load limitations – The rover can carry a maximum of three rocks at a time.
    • Power limitations – The rover only has a certain amount of energy to use each day. Today, the rover has enough energy for no more than 20 commands.
  12. Have teams place the colored rocks on the game board in the circles of the matching color. Teams should also place the rover game piece on the START square facing forward, as indicated by the arrow.
  13. Decide in advance or have teams decide who will fill the following roles:

    • Scientist (1-2 students) – Maximize the science return of the mission. In other words, have the rover collect rocks to get as many science points as possible. Work with the Engineer to determine which rocks to pick up and what commands are needed to get them.
    • Engineer (1-2 students) – Make sure the rover does not exceed the “engineering constraints” while performing the mission. Work with the Scientist to determine which rocks to pick up and what commands are needed to get them.
    • Rover (1 student) – Receive and execute commands from the Scientist and Engineer. Move the rover game piece to the proper location and retrieve rock samples as commanded.
  14. Send all the students playing the role of the rover to the area of the classroom designated as Mars. Have these students do internet research and watch videos to learn more about what it’s like on Mars and how a rover operates. Have rovers explore the surface using Google Mars.
  15. Meanwhile, have the science and engineering team plan the command sequence they will use to direct the rover, using the following symbols:

    • Forward up arrow icon (move forward one square)
    • Reverse down arrow icon (move backward one square)
    • Left left arrow icon (turn left 90° on the current square)
    • Right right arrow icon (turn right 90° on the current square)
    • Collect circle with a cross in the middle icon (pick up a rock on the current square)
  16. Remind the team that their goal is to collect rocks that earn them the most science points possible while staying within the engineering constraints. The rocks have the following point values:

    • Silver – 1 point
    • Blue – 2 points
    • Red – 3 points
    • Green – 4 points
    • Black – 5 points
  17. When science and engineering teams are ready with their command sequences, have the rovers return to their teams and execute each command, as read aloud by the science and engineering team, by moving the rover game piece and picking up rocks accordingly. Alternately, the science and engineering team can hand the written command sequence to the rover and watch as it is executed.
  18. When the rovers reach the FINISH square, have teams add up points for the rocks each rover collected and compare them with the other teams.

Discussion

  • Debrief students. Ask what was hard and what was easy. Did the command sequence go as planned?
  • Have students learn about real Mars rover driver, Paulo Bellutta, and science planner, Keri Bean.

Assessment

Students should be able to assemble suitable commands in a logical order.

Extensions

Have students play the Mars Rover Game from NASA's Space Place.