Space Lander Mission

Last year, I started a new Space Club program at four middle schools. Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, I searched the web for ideas and curriculum to implement. I soon became excited to find great resources like NASA and TeachEngineering, but I was also overwhelmed as a simple Google search for "Space STEM activities" gives you a mere 89 million hits. Wading through a lot of junk eventually brought some gems that I could implement, and I leave it to another post to rant about the lack of quality in many activities that claim to be "STEM." 

One great idea I found was from a NASA activity based on designing a landing craft. My Vivify partner, Claire, and I modified the idea to involve aliens, a topic middle school students find particularly fascinating. The design challenge is presented as follows: 

An alien spacecraft has been spotted orbiting Earth. They are a peaceful species and wish to share their advanced technology with the human race. But they need our help! They do not have a way to land on Earth. Your mission: Design and build a shock-absorbing lander to protect two aliens during impact on Earth. Only the supplies available on the spacecraft can be used. 

Basically, the teams need to engineer a lander that can keep two "alien" marshmallows inside a cup when dropped. Students learn about shock-absorption and stability, and then using items such as straws, index cards, and mini marshmallows, they build their lander. The key is to keep testing and modifying the design to enhance stability and absorb the shock from impact. This project is exciting because there are so many ways to use the materials, and they can quickly see if their design works.  Side note: Students will try to eat, squish, and draw on the "aliens"! 

Like every STEM challenge, I start this one with a hook that connects the activity to an exciting real-world application. I love the following video by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory that details the challenges of landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. This is a very dramatic and exciting video with narration by NASA engineers. The music alone will catch their attention! 

After the video and a discussion on the challenge constraints, the student teams should jump right in. And my Space Club students loved this challenge! At the end, we made this into a classroom competition to see who could go the highest. Students stood in a circle, and teams came up one by one to test their lander. They cheered and groaned, and the entire class was actively engaged. I was also amazed at the variety and creativity of lander designs! 

I love this challenge so much that I have repeated it for outreach presentations from upper elementary to high school students. This activity is engaging, cheap, easy to implement, and a great connection to many math and science subjects. Teachers can incorporate geometry, algebra, physics, and more! 

If you would like ideas on how to implement this in your classroom or program, you can check-out the Vivify product here. Included with this activity is over 30 pages of: 

  • Detailed teacher guide
  • Student handouts guiding them through design process
  • Student recording sheet
  • Math connections including: ratios, geometry, graphing, and equations
  • Aligned to the Common Core and NGSS Engineering Design Standards

We hope your students enjoy this activity!