Explore! Life on Mars

Mars Engineering

Adapted from “Build An LRO” activity, Explore! To the Moon and Beyond activities, Lunar and Planetary Institute, 2010.


Children ages 8–13 create their own models of a Mars rover out of readily available materials and craft supplies in this 45–60-minute activity. They determine what tools would be necessary to help them better understand Mars (and something about life on Mars/its habitability). Then they work in teams of 4–6 to complete a design challenge where they incorporate these elements into their models, which must successfully complete a task. Teams may also work together to create a large-scale, lobby-sized version that may be put on display in the library to engage their community.

What's the Point?

  • Scientists and engineers work together to design and build spacecraft such as NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (onboard the Curiosity rover).
  • Scientists use tools to make measurements, observe, and experiment — to explore.
  • Many of those tools measure things that humans cannot see, smell, taste, feel, or hear. The Mars spacecraft, such as the Curiosity rover, have instruments onboard to collect information.
  • Science helps technology improve. Each new spacecraft carries many new instruments and some that are improvements on previous designs.
  • There is always a balance between what scientists would like to test and what is possible. Many instruments were proposed by different teams of scientists and engineers, but not all could be selected because the spacecraft has a limited amount of space for the instruments to be mounted; it can carry only a certain weight, and there is a limited budget for developing the instruments.
  • Technology is created to serve a purpose. Each mission has its own goals and objectives.
  • Science is driven by technology and vice versa. They rely heavily on each other, with advancements in one leading to advancements in the other.
  • To design and create your own rover!

Tips for Engaging Girls in STEM:
  • Encourage a growth mindset. Teach that intellectual skills can be acquired and developed over time. This activity provides an opportunity for the children to acquire new skills in engineering and problem solving.
  • Praise children for their effort (not intelligence). Help them to view efforts as a path to mastery. Example: “Well done; you worked really hard on that and got it to work!” Girls’ confidence and performance improves in response to specific, positive feedback on things they can control — such as effort, strategies, and behaviors. This activity provides an opportunity for the facilitator to provide feedback based on things the children can control.
  • Encourage children to persist despite obstacles. Highlight the struggle and the attitude of “never give up” that is necessary in STEM. Note that in science and engineering, we embrace the challenge and the hard work. Working hard to gain new knowledge leads to improved performance.
  • Expose children to successful role models in math and science. This can help children to realize their career-relevant skills (professional societies, such as the Society of Women Engineers, are often willing to take part in programs and may be a source for positive role models). This activity provides an opportunity to involve a positive role model and provides suggestions for where to find one.
  • Provide opportunities for developing spatial skills. Spatial skills are not innate and can be improved with training and experience. This activity provides an opportunity for children to design, draw, and build.


For each team of 4–6 children:

  • 2 copies of the engineering design process (The Works or Design Squad are good options)
  • 3 rolls of duct tape (variety of colors and metallic)
  • 1 roll of masking tape
  • 1 roll of Scotch® tape
  • 2–3 pairs of scissors
  • 4–6 markers (permanent, in a variety of colors)
  • 1 bottle of glue
  • 1 roll of aluminum foil
  • 3 rocks, 2"–3" in diameter (any type that is easily available)
  • Materials for building a model rover: variety of building materials: 
    • Miscellaneous Craft and Everyday Items:  Straws, pencil top erasers, beads of various sizes, foil cupcake holders, screens, wooden miniatures, aluminum foil, plastic wrap (of all colors), old CDs, pipe cleaners, toothpicks, wire, wire cutters, Legos, construction paper (variety of colors, black), tinsel, ribbon, fabric, gauze, wood dowels/skewers, rubber bands, shiny streamers, etc.
    • For Rover Wheels:  Wooden spools, large buttons, bottle caps, plastic cups (sturdy), empty (clean) Play-Doh® containers, old CDs, etc.
    • For Rover Body:  Pint-sized milk containers, coffee cans, soup cans (tape any sharp edges), paper or Styrofoam cups, or other objects for the spacecraft body, empty DVD cases, black plastic or biodegradable seedling (plant) trays, empty egg cartons, cereal boxes, 2-liter soda bottles, different-sized Styrofoam blocks, other empty plastic or cardboard containers/boxes, etc.
    • Other:  Use your imagination and best judgment for providing safe, fun, and readily available materials!

For each child:

For the facilitator:

  • background information
  • shopping list
  • area indoors where the children can move around and interact with each other
  • butcher paper/disposable table cloth to cover tables
  • optional: hot glue guns with glue sticks (*use caution and have an adult in charge of the hot glue at a station for all teams to access as needed)


  • Review activity procedures and background Information.
  • Cover work tables with butcher paper.
  • Print copies of the Curiosity Tools Schematic (rover).
  • Prepare an area for rover building:
    • Set of rocks (2"–3" in diameter), 3 rocks per team
    • Variety of craft and other materials for building
  • Optional:  Print copies of Extreme-O-File activity pages.


1. Divide the children into teams of 4–6 children.

2. Share that NASA wants to learn more about Mars and its ability to support life in order to prepare for future explorations. Because it’s expensive to send humans, it’s important to learn more about Mars with robotic explorers and probes. These robots aren’t like those we see in movies, with eyes, hands, and legs, but rather spacecraft and rovers that have many instruments to test for water ice and elements in rocks, map where the surface is safe for landing and building, and find where scientific questions, such as signs of life, can best be studied. All these activities will prepare future astronauts — the children in your program — to explore even more of the solar system!

3. Share with the children that they will be working in teams to make their own Mars rovers, but first they need to learn more about the rover and the engineering process. Hand out and discuss the engineering design process and Extreme-O-File activity pages (optional).  Optional:  Have the children record their ideas on their activity pages.

  • What is engineering? The engineering process? Hand out pencils, copies of the activity pages for this activity (that will contain the Team Design Worksheet), and one copy of an engineering design process to each team.
  • What tools do you use to explore? Eyes, ears, noses, senses of touch and taste, cameras, thermometers, flashlights, magnifying glasses, etc. Encourage imaginative answers!
  • What kinds of tools can you design for your rover to explore with? Cameras, thermometers, telescopes, etc. Encourage imaginative answers!
  • In what ways are robots, like the rover, different from human explorers?
    • They don’t need to eat, but they need power from solar panels or batteries.
    • They are stronger — better able to withstand the radiation, cold and heat, and vacuum of space.
    • They can’t think for themselves, and they are not creative, so we have to tell them what to do with antennas and program their computers.

Facilitator’s Note: 

Rovers operate on the surface of Mars, so they are able to mimic human senses like sight and smell, but their “sight” and range of view are limited (more so than an orbiter).

4. Share with the children the
schematic of the Curiosity rover that is currently exploring Mars. Discuss its mission and timeline (details can be found at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/overview/).

Facilitator's Note: 

The Curiosity rover’s (Mars Science Laboratory) primary mission objective is to investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life on Mars in the past, to study the geological past and conditions on Mars, and to preserve clues in the rocks about possible past life. Curiosity carries the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever sent and used on the martian surface and is about 10 times more massive than earlier Mars rovers. It is helping scientists advance technologies for precision landing of heavy payloads to the surface, which will be necessary if people are ever to go to the Red Planet. That capability will also be important for future missions to Mars in order for them to pick up and return rocks to Earth, as well as to conduct further surface exploration for martian life. Mars Science Laboratory (onboard the Curiosity rover) launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in November 2011 and arrived safely on Mars in August 2012. Curiosity is currently conducting its primary mission, which will continue for at least two years

  • What different parts do you see? Look at descriptions/schematics of the rover.
    • A body that holds the instruments (engineers call this a platform). Solar panels for collecting energy from the Sun (the energy is stored in a battery). Communications equipment to send information back to eager scientists on Earth. A propulsion system to help the spacecraft move a bit in its journey. Shiny film to shield the spacecraft. Cameras pointing down/out at the planet.
    • Are the instruments spread out or crowded into a few places? Pretty crowded!
    • Due to the diverse tasks and science objectives, Curiosity is crowded with several very important instruments. Scientists had to design these instruments to be as compact and lightweight as possible. Curiosity tested out a new landing system designed to allow the successful delivery of heavy payloads to the martian surface.
    • Optional:  Show the children this online, interactive Curiosity rover website and allow them time to explore it.
  • What kinds of information will the rover collect for scientists? 
    • pictures
    • chemical information
    • geologic information
    • testing and implementation of new technology and techniques

5. Design Challenge!  Each team’s mission is to design and build a rover out of the materials available that can pick up, move, and set a rock down into a (fake) scientific instrument on the rover body, like the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument onboard the Curiosity rover. This test will mimic a function that may be used by a real rover, such as Curiosity, as it explores and tests rock samples. Provide the materials and prompt them to keep in mind important elements to include in their designs. Engineers have multiple challenges — creating a functional rover and also the scientific instruments to go onboard it! Optional:  Have the children complete the Extreme-O-File: Mars Engineering activity pages, recording their design and testing.

Have them identify what component each material represents on their model. Remind the children about the design process used in engineering and encourage them to follow the steps to complete the challenge. Each team should work through the design process (Extreme-O-File activity pages optional) together, making sure to answer and address the following:

  • What will you use to power your rover? Solar, batteries, etc.
  • How will your rover move around? Wheels, rocket, etc. Note:  The children will need to manually push their rovers for the rock challenge, but they can use their imagination for what would really power their rover on Mars.
  • What tools will your rover use to explore Mars? Cameras, lasers, etc.
  • Where will you place your instrument for analyzing rocks on your rover? This is the location where the rock will be placed for the design challenge.
  • How will it report back to scientists on Earth? Communications.
  • Which materials will you use to represent each component of your rover and why?

Optional: You may have the group or an individual team work together to create a larger model that will be used as an exhibit to be placed on display at the library for a certain amount of time. This display could tie in nicely with a family event such as the Live Tonight: The Planets! activity (included within this module).

6. Build and test the rovers. Allow each team time to build, test, modify, and retest their rovers. Make sure to let them know how much time they will have to complete the challenge (to be decided by the facilitator), giving them reminders every 10 minutes of time passed. It is important for the teams to stay on task in order to complete the challenge on time. Remind them of the challenge task below — it may be useful to post the challenge task for the group where all can see it. Note: It is recommended that you give each team at least 30 minutes for this phase of the activity. You may allow more time if desired.

  • Each team’s rover should be tested three times and successfully complete the following tasks:
    • pick up a rock
    • move the rock to the rover body
    • set down the rock in/on the rover’s rock sample analysis instrument

7. Invite the children to share their rover designs, and how they will help to meet the mission objective and successfully complete the challenge. With these in mind, ask each group to share the following:

  • How did your team go about selecting the tools/instruments for your rover to meet the mission objective (moving the rock)? What worked well? What didn’t?
  • How did you work together to solve problems?
  • What other tools does your rover have and what will it tell scientists?
    • Optional:  Recall your group definition for life and the four requirements of life discussed in previous activities. Did your group use these in your rover design? If so, how?
  • How will the rover communicate with Earth?
  • What powers your rover?
  • What helps it move around?
  • Any other features that you would like to share?

In Conclusion

Explain that many NASA engineers and scientists worked together to plan, build, and launch spacecraft such as the Curiosity rover (much like the children just did). They, too, had to decide what tools to give the spacecraft, given specific mission goals/objectives. Many instruments were proposed by different teams of scientists and engineers, but not all could be selected because the rover has a limited amount of space for the instruments to be mounted; it can carry only a certain weight, and there is a limited budget for developing the instruments. There is always a balance between what scientists would like to test and what is possible. The specific instruments were selected to help scientists and engineers meet the objectives of the mission — to characterize the martian surface, help us to determine important characteristics of the surface and environment, and prepare for future human missions. These scientists used their understanding of life and what it needs in order to address these mission goals. Some of the instruments are new technologies and others build on successful technology used on other spacecraft. They provide scientists and engineers with information that is not available or with more detailed information than what has been collected in earlier missions.

Summarize the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) mission objectives, and how the results of the mission science may help to identify locations on Mars where the building blocks for life were present in the past — as recorded in the rocks. Mars is a good candidate for finding past and/or present life beyond Earth.

Explain that you will put each team’s rover on display in the library to share with their community, along with a brief poster about the activity. Ask them to quickly decide who on their team will pick up and keep the rover in two weeks’ time (or set another date as appropriate). Congratulate them on a job well done and invite them to bring their family and friends to see their creations and check out related library resources.

Optional:  If a large-scale exhibit rover was created for the library, then put it on display with information from your program.


1. Create a poster as a group about your Mars Engineering Rovers to put on display in the library for your community. Using what you have learned and the Extreme-O-File (optional) and astrobiology resources, have the children work as a group to create a poster describing the project to put on display in the library. You may cut out and use parts of the Extreme-O-File activity pages and other activity resources (make sure to have extra copies available for this purpose), as well as creating text and artwork to include on the poster. They should be sure to include the following:

  • The group definition of life (if this was completed previously).
  • The four requirements for life.  Water, energy, protection, nutrients.
  • What is it like on Mars? Compare temperature, water, and nutrients on Mars versus Earth.
  • Design/engineering process.
  • The mission/challenge:  To design and create a Mars rover that can successfully pick up a rock, move it to the rover body, and set it in/on the rover’s rock analysis instrument. Relate their rover to the Curiosity rover and its SAM instrument.

Note:  You may want to have the children work in groups of 4–6 for each question to be addressed in the poster, and then bring all groups together to assemble it.

2. Create a Mars landscape to go along with your rovers! Provide a variety of craft materials that may be used to draw or make a model landscape of Mars (for example, clay or Play-Doh, sand, rocks, colored and/or plain paper, markers, crayons, glitter, pipe cleaners, foil, pom-poms, tape, glue, images of Mars for a background, etc.) inside a box (with no top and one side mostly removed for viewing). When the children are finished with their rovers, invite them to work together to create a model of the martian landscape in order to create a display for the library to set out and share with their community.

Note:  Research pictures of Mars by browsing through library books or NASA online mission images (such as those taken by the Curiosity rover: mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/images/)

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