Explore! Life on Mars

Mars from Above: Viewing Volcanos

This activity has been modified from Lava Layering, an activity in Exploring the Moon:  A Teacher’s Guide with activities for Earth and Space Sciences, NASA Education Product EG-1997-10-116-HQ by J. Taylor and L. Martel and the Scratching the Surface unit of Explore! Mars:  Inside and Out, Lunar and Planetary Institute, 2007.


Viewing Volcanos is a 15-minute activity in which children ages 8–13 create volcanos like those they have examined on Earth and Mars through images taken by spacecraft. Using baking soda and vinegar, they model volcanic eruptions. The children explore the basics of volcanos, how scientists view and identify these features from space, and reflect on what the presence of volcanos means about a planet’s interior.

What's the Point?

  • Volcanos may erupt multiple times, creating several volcanic layers.
  • The presence of volcanos on a planet or moon is evidence that the interior of that planet was once — or still is — hot enough to produce molten rock (magma) — that flows as lava across the surface!
  • Models — such as the children are using here — can be tools for understanding the natural world.
  • Geologists use features on Earth to help them understand how similar features may have formed on other planets, like Mars.
  • Planets with active volcanos are said to be geologically active. Scientists believe that this is important for a planet’s ability to support life — its ability to supply the requirements of life. Since Mars has volcanos, it was geologically active in the past and may have been able to support life!
Tips for Engaging Girls in STEM:
  • Use group work and collaboration to help engage children. Girls benefit from collaboration, especially when they can participate and communicate fairly. Girls are energized by the social part of science, working and learning together. This activity gives the children the opportunity to collaborate and work together in a fun and engaging social environment.
  • Encourage critical thinking. Girls gain confidence and trust in their own reasoning when encouraged to think critically. This activity provides an opportunity for children to use imagery to think critically about what it is like on Mars (what we can observe) and what that can tell us about its past and potential to support life — now or in the past.
  • 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 think three-dimensionally, by creating a model and drawings to represent their ideas and observations.


For each group of 4–6 children (one station):

  • 2–3 rolls of Scotch® tape
  • 1 small bottle of white vinegar
  • 1, 1-cup measuring cup
  • 1 tablespoon (for measuring vinegar)
  • 1 small box of baking soda (16 oz.)
  • 4 plastic spoons (for measuring/scooping baking soda)
  • 1 roll of paper towels
  • 1 plastic tablecloth (to cover and protect the table)
  • 1 garbage can (lined)
  • 1 set of full-page Earth Image Placemats (volcano images only) from Mars Match activity
  • 1 set of Mars Cards (volcano images only) from the Mars Match activity
  • optional:  laminating pages or page protectors for the volcano images

For each child:

  • 1 pencil/pen
  • Materials for a volcano:
    • 1 heavy-duty paper plate
    • 1 piece of aluminum foil approximately 18" long
    • 1 small paper cup (4 oz. or smaller)
  • optional: 1 cookie sheet or other shallow pan
  • optional: one set of Extreme-O-File: Mars from Above activity pages
  • optional: clipboard
  • optional: one set of Life on Mars? Trading Cards
    Trading Cards (large file, 34 MB)
    Trading Cards (small file, 7 MB)

For the facilitator:


  • Review the activity procedures, activity pages, and background information.
  • Prepare an area large enough to accommodate the volcanos for the number of children participating.
  • For each group of 4–6 children, cover the tables to protect them and set out and organize the materials for building a volcano and creating an eruption.
  • Make copies of the Earth and Mars volcano images (from Mars Match activity).
  • Place copies of the Mars/Earth volcano images near the tables/stations. You may wish to laminate or put these images into page protectors to protect them from the water during the activity.
  • Cover the tables/stations to protect from the “eruptions.”
    • You may want to have the children place their volcanos on a cookie sheet or other shallow pan to catch the mess from their eruption.
  • Optional:  Make copies of the Extreme-O-File activity pages for each child.


Divide the children into groups of 4–6 children each. Each group should have one volcano table/station with materials and an adult facilitator (if possible).

1. Consider the images of volcanos on Mars and Earth.

  • What do the features look like? Volcanos!
  • How might volcanos have formed on Earth? Many possible answers.
  • What do you think created the volcanos on Mars? Many possible answers.

Let’s find out how they form!

Facilitator’s Note:  Volcanism in a Big Way
Early Mars was volcanically active, spewing lava across its surface, and water and carbon dioxide into its atmosphere. Much of this early history, recorded in the older southern highlands, is obscured by impact craters.

From about 3.5 billion years ago until more recently, the volcanic — and tectonic — activity has been concentrated around the Tharsis region near the equator. Tharsis is a huge bulge in the martian crust, capped by prominent volcanos. Some scientists suggest the bulge overlies a region of hotter than normal mantle. The high temperatures allowed the development of numerous large volcanos. These volcanos thickened the crust, causing Tharsis to be higher than other parts of Mars. The crust was pulled apart to form the immense canyon of Valles Marineris more than 3 billion years ago.

For more information on volcanism, please visit Explore! Shaping the Planets.

2. Share with the children that they are each going to create their own volcanos to take home with them.
To create the volcano, follow these steps:


Your volcano is now complete and ready!

  • Take one paper plate and flip it upside down on the table.
  • Take one small paper cup and tape it right-side up to the center of the inverted plate, making sure that it is securely in place.
  • Cover the plate and cup with the 18" piece of aluminum foil, wrapping and squeezing the edges around the edges of the plate tightly.
  • Use your pencil to carefully poke two or three holes through the aluminum foil over the center area of the cup, and then use your fingers to carefully rip and fold the foil into the cup so that your volcano now has an open center (vent/magma) chamber.
  • If desired, tape the edges of the aluminum foil down inside the cup so they do not stick up.
  • Very carefully wrinkle the sides of your volcano to make it resemble a real mountain.

3. Share with the children that they are each going to create volcanic eruptions and examine how the lava flows and consider what it tells us about the inside of a planet! Each child will now model eruptions and observe how volcanos are created from flowing lava.

  • Have each child add two spoonfuls of baking soda to the center of their volcano.
  • When ready, add one tablespoon of vinegar to the cup and watch your eruption!
    • Can you describe what happened? The liquid began to bubble and flow over the edge of the cup.
    • What is it called when magma — molten rock — bubbles over the edge of a volcano? An eruption.
    • What does the liquid flowing out of the cup represent? What do we call magma after it leaves the volcano (on the surface of a planet)? Lava — molten rock flowing across the surface of a planet.
    • In this activity, the lava came from a cup. Where does lava really come from? Lava is molten — or liquid — rock that comes from inside the Earth. When it is inside the Earth, it is called “magma.” When it flows at the surface, it is called “lava.”
    • What does this tell us about the inside of a planet? That it is very hot — hot enough to melt rock!

4. Discuss how scientists identify volcanos on Mars without being able to see them from the surface. Direct the children’s attention to the set of Mars Cards. Explain to them how the images were taken so that they understand that they are looking down on these features from space — just like the orbiting spacecraft that took the images! Note: If the children have completed the Mars Match activity, remind them what they learned about observing geologic features — such as volcanos — from space.

  • Have the children place their volcanos on the floor and look straight down at them. Ask them to imagine that they are an orbiter looking down on Mars and taking pictures.
    • Can they see a similarity to the real Mars images when viewing their own volcanos like this (from above)?
    • If desired (time permitting), have them look down at their volcanos as you shine a flashlight toward it from the side (note that this will work better in a darker room).
      • What does the flashlight represent? The Sun! Shadows caused by the Sun can help us to identify surface features!

Facilitator’s Note:  If the children have difficulty understanding the perspective of the images, you can use the bowl and flashlight to help make sure that they understand the perspective from which the images were taken. 

(1) Flip the bowl upside down and place it on a surface. Invite the children to look at the bowl from the side. Does it look like a hill or mountain from this viewing angle? 

(2) Next, invite the children to look at the bowl or hill from above. They are now looking at the bowl in much the same way as the spacecraft looked at Mars when taking images.


How does the “hill” look to the audience now? Is it different than viewing from the surface? Yes! Looking down on features, it is not easy to tell what is sticking up from the surface, like a hill/mountain, versus what is dipping in below the surface, like a crater/hole. By using the flashlight to simulate sunlight hitting the bowl (our geologic feature), we can observe where shadows occur. This can help us to determine the relief of the topography — whether it is sticking up or dipping below the surface. Notice for features sticking above the surface, like a hill/mountain, the shadow lies outside the feature, opposite the direction of the sunlight. For holes or depressions in a surface, the shadow will lie inside the feature, opposite of the direction of sunlight.

  • Why do scientists care if there are volcanos on Mars?
    Explain to them that planets with active volcanos are said to be geologically active. Scientists believe that this is important for a planet’s ability to support life — its ability to supply the requirements of life. Gases released from volcanic eruptions (similar to the gas bubbles released during their ‘eruptions’) can help to form or augment an atmosphere on a planet. Planets need atmospheres to protect living things from harmful radiation form the Sun.

    Mars is not volcanically active today, but these images show us that it was in the past.
    There is also evidence that Mars had a thicker atmosphere in the past, likely augmented by the volcanic activity. Therefore, scientists are interested in Mars in their search for life in the universe because it has volcanos, it was geologically active in the past, and thus may have been able to support life

In Conclusion

Have the children reflect on what they observed and the images from Mars and Earth, their eruptions, and what the presence of volcanos indicates for the possibility of life on a planet. Optional:  Invite them to record what they learned in their Extreme-O-File activity pages for this activity.

  • Did you observe volcanos on Earth? Mars? Yes — both!
  • Is there evidence of volcanos erupting on Earth? Yes, there are pictures of active volcanic eruptions!
  • Is there evidence of volcanos erupting on Mars? Not of actual eruptions, but there are volcanos on Mars. Scientists are not sure how old they are, or if they are still active. These are questions scientists still are researching.
  • If a planet has active volcanos, what does that tell you about the planet? That it is still hot enough inside to melt rock and make magma that erupts from the surface. That the planet may be able to support life.
  • Even if Mars’ volcanos are not active today, what can we say about the inside of Mars? That at one time it was hot enough to make magma that erupted at the surface and may have been able to support the requirements for early life.


Add the Explore:  Mars Inside and Out activity, Scratching the Surface — Crater Creations, as an additional station. In this activity, the children will model the formation of craters and can consider how they are viewed by scientists from space (in much the same way that was done for the Viewing Volcanos activity). Make sure to include the Mars Match Cards and Earth Placemat Images (craters only) as a part of the discussion. Summarize that Mars and Earth have been shaped by similar processes, and that we can find craters on both planets. Some of these craters are associated with the central vent of volcanos. For the activity information and instructions, please visit Scratching the Surface - Crater Creation.

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