Explore - Mars: Inside and Out! - Setting the Scene

Setting the Scene


Setting the Scene, a 60-90 minute activity for children ages 8-13, engages participants in an exploration of Mars' surface features by comparing and contrasting them with surface features on Earth. As planetary investigators, teams of children examine images of volcanos, channels, and craters on Earth and Mars. The activity can be divided into two sessions, and is the lead-in to hands-on investigations of how volcanos, channels, and craters form.

What's the Point?

  • Mars has many surface features similar to those on Earth, including volcanos, stream channels, and impact craters.
  • There are differences in features on Mars and Earth. Mars has fewer volcanos than Earth, but they are much larger. Mars has many more craters than Earth. Mars does not have liquid water on its surface today, but features that look like stream channels on Earth suggest it had flowing water in the past.


For each child:

For each Earth Team of 3 to 4 children:

For each Mars Team of 3 to 4 children:

For the Group:

  • Chalk or white board, or poster paper and markers to record the children's ideas
  • Several sheets of poster paper and markers for the teams to record their observations

For the Facilitator:


  • Prepare an area large enough for teams of 3 to 4, and 6 to 8, children to work. The children may be more comfortable working on the floor for this activity.
  • Print images for the appropriate number of groups. You may wish to laminate or place your images in sheet protectors.
  • Prepare a GSI Journal for each child.


1. Distribute the GSI Journals and a pencil to each child, and invite them to become planetary investigators! The planets they will investigate are Mars and Earth. They will begin their investigation by making observations, asking questions, and recording and sharing information.

2. Allow the children a few minutes to examine their journals. Ask them to fill out the first two pages with their name and what they know — and want to learn — about Mars. Explain that they will record their observations, findings, and questions in their GSI Journals for each activity — just like scientists do.

3. Team up! Divide the children into two groups; half will investigate Earth and half will investigate Mars. Let them know that everyone will have the opportunity to explore both planets! Subdivide the Mars group into smaller teams of 3 or 4 children. Do the same for the Earth group. Provide each Mars team with the Mars images, and each Earth team with the Earth images.

4. Invite the teams to examine the images and organize them by the types of features they observe.

  • How many different features are there?
  • Ask them to characterize their features. What are their shapes? Are they above ground level? Below? Can they tell how big they are?
  • Do they recognize any of the features? What are they? If the children do not have a name for the different features, invite them to create a descriptive name (for example, craters might be called "circular holes").
  • If the children have difficulty distinguishing between volcanos and craters in the images, ask them to observe where the shadows fall. Craters are circular depressions in the ground, and often the inside of the "bowl" has a distinct shadow, if the sunlight is striking the crater at an angle. Volcanos are mountains above the landscape, and they often cast shadows on the ground "outside" of the feature. You can illustrate this by moving the beam of a flashlight across a soup bowl (crater) and an inverted soup bowl (Volcano).
  • For any one type of feature, how are the different examples different? The same?

Have each child record what ideas they have at this point in time in their GSI Journal. Some of the questions — about where the features occur and how they form — will be addressed in the next part of the activity.

5. After all the teams have completed their observations, have them reconvene with their Mars - or Earth - group and share their observations. Ask each team to add any observations they missed to their journals.

6. Pair each Mars team with an Earth team. Each of the new Earth/Mars teams should have 6-8 children.

7. Invite each team to compare and contrast the features they observed.

  • Are there similar features on Earth and Mars? What are they?
  • Are there different features?
  • How do the features compare? What's the same and what's different about them? Are they the same size? Shape? Are there more on one planet than the other? Fewer? Note that the children will not have enough information to answer all of these questions for every one of the features.

Provide each team with a sheet of poster paper and have them make a list of the features, and of the similarities and differences they observe for the feature

8. Bring the teams together to discuss what they observed. Make a chart, similar to their posters, to record the information.

  • Are there similar features on Earth and Mars? What are they?
  • Are there different features?
  • What's the same and what's different about the features?
  • Can they name the features? (terminology can be introduced in the next set of hands-on activities)


Encourage the children to complete the information for each feature in their GSI Journals.

  • Where were the different features observed — Mars, Earth, both?
  • How do they think the features formed?

Share with the children that in the next part of their investigation they will create models to discover how the features they have just observed formed!