Mars Discovery Program

Verizon Innovative Learning explorer lab

The aim of the Verizon Innovative Learning explorer lab is not only to give students a unique STEM experience but also to give them an experience that echoes in the classroom. By working through the engineering challenges, students gain knowledge about the space sciences and experience applying scientific practices. The Mars Discovery Program takes students to the Red Planet. Students will work through the engineering design process through game-based learning. Companion engagement and extension activities may be used to enhance the experience and assist teachers in bringing engineering design into their classroom.

The explorer lab was created by Verizon Innovative Learning, the education initiative of the Verizon Foundation. We need more kids to see the world of possibilities available to them. Learn more at

The engineering experience

During the explorer lab experience, students work through the engineering design process by creating and modifying rovers for a specific mission on Mars. The process of identifying problems, developing solutions, testing, and optimizing their designs makes up the core of the engineering process. These skills will enhance their knowledge of engineering and their problem-solving skills. Students will better understand how they can apply the science they learn in the classroom to real world problems. Engineering design also invites students to be creative and inventive, which can ignite interest in students who have not previously shown interest in science or engineering.

Astronomy and space sciences

In the Mars Discovery program, students go on an interactive tour of the solar system, learning about the habitability of other planets and the search for life on Mars. They will be introduced to the geology of Mars, the building blocks of life, and the different technologies scientists use in space exploration. While the main learning objective of the explorer lab experience is not necessarily for students to walk away with new content knowledge about space, we expect that they very likely will.

Experiencing scientific practices

In smaller moments throughout the experience, students will encounter the basic practices of scientific inquiry and STEM research. The aim is that students “try on” the practices of real scientists, engineers, and explorers. Students will do things like:

  • Ask questions
  • Do multi-step investigations
  • Collaborate
  • Select the right tool
  • Solve problems
  • Plan investigations
  • Compare outcomes
  • Observe and note

Learning objectives

Engineering and design: Students practice the engineering and design process that factors in tradeoffs and consideration for environmental constraints.

STEM careers: Students experience relevant and in- context STEM missions that ignite curiosity and interest in STEM careers.

Space and scientific practices: Students engage in scientific practices (such as analyzing evidence, planning investigations, and collaborating) through the context of space-related content

Engineering and design in the classroom

With the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards comes the opportunity for teachers to integrate engineering into their science curriculum. The explorer lab will take students on a Mars mission where they will work through engineering design challenges similar to the ones experienced by the engineers at NASA. The engineering challenges on the explorer lab are designed to have students understand science through the application of engineering practices and are aligned with the middle school NGSS standards for engineering design; MS-ETS-1, MS-ETS-2, and MS-ETS-3.

Students will build and modify rovers, test them on navigation missions, and then re-design them, improving them as they progress through the game. Students need to identify the criteria to complete each level and the constraints of their limited tools and equipment to accomplish this. Students are encouraged to design multiple possible solutions to overcome the problems they will face. They will test, iterate, fail, work with others, and ultimately see their final design in action. These open-ended challenges celebrate creativity, perseverance, and curiosity and give students the opportunity to feel like real scientists and engineers.

Engineering design process

Identify the problem

During the Mars Destination mission, students must remotely drive rovers over the Martian surface and complete different challenges presented to them. To progress through the game, students will have to identify what challenges their rover faces and overcome them in order to move forward to the next levels. They will face a multitude of different challenges throughout the game, including how to design a rover to maneuver over different terrains and how to best collect evidence of water and life on Mars.

Brainstorm solutions

To overcome the different obstacles they face, students will have to conceive different solutions for them. They may have to come up with alternative wheel designs or take different routes in order to cross the Martian surface. They will have to identify the constraints of their solutions such as limited battery power or the type of obstacles on the Martian surface. There might be multiple solutions to a problem and students will have to deliberate the pros and cons of each before they select a design.

Test, evaluate, and optimize

After students choose a design, they will have to test it on the Martian surface. As they drive their rovers, will their rovers be able to get over large boulders? Will the battery last the whole trek? Was their rover able to complete the required task and collect different samples? These are the types of questions that they will have to evaluate and answer as they test their rovers. Students will learn quickly that not all designs are equal. Many of their rover designs will fail at first. To overcome this, students are able to re-design and optimize their rovers based on the limitations and difficulties they encounter. They will be able to work through the engineering loop until they find the optimal solution to their problem.

Prior to your Verizon Innovative Learning explorer lab visit, engage students with the Pasta Rover Challenge and/or the Draw an Engineer activity.

Pasta Rover Challenge

Pasta Rover Challenge is an introduction to the engineering design process and how NASA engineers work together to develop rovers to study Mars. Working in groups, students then must design their own pasta rovers to see whose rover is able to travel the furthest. Students will be limited to using only pasta and glue and must stay within a budget for their design. The goal of this activity is to have students ask the same questions that engineers do: What is the problem we need to solve? What are the constraints to my design? What are the different ways can we solve this problem? How can I improve my design?

Pasta Rover Challenge learning objectives

  • Students will define a problem that engineers face in designing a rover
  • Students will identify the constraints of developing a Martian rover
  • Students will design solutions to create a rover to complete a mission
  • Students will test their designs to see whether their rovers can complete an engineering challenge

Student handout

This Pasta Rover Challenge activity has been adapted from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab Activity “Planetary Pasta Rovers”. The activity is part of their Engineering in the Classroom tool for educators.

Draw An Engineer

During the Draw an Engineer activity students explore their own ideas of what an engineer does and their preconceptions of who is able to become an engineer. Using a combination of drawings and words, students explore and share their ideas about what engineers do and who they are.

Draw An Engineer learning objectives

  • Experience explaining ideas about what an engineer does and who becomes engineers
  • Expand student thinking about what an engineer does and who can be an engineer

Teacher handout

The Draw An Engineer activity has been adapted from the California Academy of the Sciences Draw a Scientist Lesson Plan

Watch a video of the experience: video password marsdiscovery

The Verizon Innovative Learning explorer lab is an entirely new way for middle school students to discover concepts of engineering design. The explorer lab is a shared immersive learning experience that combines movie-quality video, special effects, and hands-on educational gaming to create a learning environment that gets kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – right in the school parking lot.

Onboard explorer lab, groups of up to 16 students experience a futuristic research lab that transports them to the Red Planet. As they travel through space, they learn about the solar system and human space exploration. Once on Mars students will work collaboratively on their mission to fabricate their own rover, maneuver over the Martian surface, and find the lost Curiosity rover.

Students will compete and collaborate during the experience via tablets. While they are navigating the terrain, they will learn about the different types of evidence scientists look for on Mars. They will collect samples to understand the geology of Mars, determine whether Mars once had water, and to test if there is or once was life on Mars. They use technology like telescopes, lasers, and infrared imaging to study the Martian landscape and atmosphere.

Extend the learning of your students after their Verizon Innovative Learning explorer lab visit through extension activities on related topics. Extension activities included here have connections with earth science, life science, math, and physical science, allowing teachers to connect the explorer lab experience to their classroom.

Extension activities

Extend the explorer lab Mars Discovery Program through discussion, reiterating Pasta Rover Challenge designs or exploring engineering connections in the classroom.

Classroom discussion

The explorer lab experience takes students through the engineering design process while they are playing a game. While students may not realize it, during the game they face similar problems as NASA engineers when they design rovers for interplanetary exploration. To reiterate what they learned on the bus, hold a class discussion on how students used the engineering design process as they played the game on the explorer lab.

Explain to students that when they were on the bus, they were NASA engineers trying to find solutions to different problems they encountered in the game. Like an engineer, they used problem solving and testing to find a solution to complete the game.

Example questions to ask:

  • What problems did you face as your rover tried to travel over the Mars terrain? How did you change your rover design to find a solution?
  • What did you do when your rover could not overcome an obstacle? Why do you think it is important to test your designs?
  • How were you able to fulfill the need to collect samples?
  • Did you change your battery or collect fewer samples? Would you make different decisions if you could try again?
  • What were the constraints of designing your rover?
  • If you could redesign the rover, what would you eliminate and what would you add to your design? How would you test your rover here on Earth?
  • If time allows, have students describe and draw how they would re-design their own rovers to collect evidence and travel on Mars.

Pasta Rover Challenge, part II

Ask the students what they had to do during the explorer lab game to get their rover over obstacles. Did it always work the first time? What problems did they face?

Explain the importance of testing designs. It is rare that engineers get the right solution the first time. They need to test, evaluate, and redesign their solutions. Engineers don’t see an unsuccessful design as failure, but instead it is a learning experience to build on for a new design solution.

Following a similar procedure to that of the original Pasta Rover Challenge, have students work in the same groups to design a new pasta rover using what they learned from their original designs. Obstacles can be added to the rover course, such as pebbles, sand, or other small items, to change the terrain the rovers must travel.

Have students re-run their rovers to see how far their newly designed rovers can travel. Mark and measure how far the rovers travelled to compare to their original results.

Discuss as a class the changes they made to their rover designs and what worked and didn’t work. What were the new challenges they faced?

Engineering connections to the classroom

Engineering is an important part of all the sciences. It is the way new methodologies and technologies are created that allow scientific progress.

To connect engineering to your curriculum, have students pick a topic related to what they are studying (i.e. volcanoes, space, genetics, light, etc). This activity can be tied into numerous future career opportunities in the engineering field.

Students research a problem or challenge involving the topic being studied in class. Students then write a description of a new technology they would design to try and solve the problem. Students should be creative and use their imagination in their designs. They then will describe the steps of the engineering design process they would go through to develop their design.

Students will answer the questions:

  • What is the problem I need to solve? (i.e. How can humans travel to Saturn? How to create new organs from cells?)
  • What design or solution would you try to solve the problem and why?
  • What would be the constraints on your designs? (i.e. materials, costs, size, etc.)
  • How would you create a model and test your design?

Earth, life, and physical science classroom connections

Extend the explorer lab Mars Discovery Program in your earth, life and physical science classrooms through classroom connections Earth, life, and physical science activities
Earth Science
  • Solar System
  • Geological Timescales
  • Analysis of rock strata
  • Properties of Planets
  • The Sun
  • Scale and Distance
  • Craters

Life Science

  • Microscopic life
  • Organic compounds
  • Surviving in space
  • Adaptations to environment
  • Origins of life
  • Cell function in space

Physical Science

  • Energy
  • Magnetism
  • Newton’s Laws of Motion
  • Wavelength and Frequency
  • Electromagnetic spectrum
  • Gravitational forces
  • Magnetism
  • Reflection and Absorption

GRADE LEVEL  Grades 6, 7, and 8

FOCUS Engineering, solar system, and human space exploration

TIME 30-60 minutes

MS-ETS1  Engineering Design

Additional classroom connections + activities
For earth, life and physical science teachers

Background information
Background information & FAQs for students

Requesting a visit

The explorer lab will serve District of Columbia Public Schools middle schools in 2017/18 our pilot year. We hope to serve more than 5,000 DC students during the program’s first year.

DCPS middle school teachers who attend one of our Mars Discovery Program professional development workshops in August may request to have the explorer lab come to their school during their session.


Additional resources

Information on Mars and Human exploration:

General Facts about Mars  Contains facts about Mars such as size, gravity, temperature, and length of year as compared to Earth

What will it take to live on Mars? (download) Powerpoint presentation presents facts about Mars and the environmental constraints humans must overcome to study Mars.

Mars in a Minute Videos  Short video series teaching key concepts about Mars and the Mars missions.

Mars in Popular Culture  Provides examples of how Mars has infiltrated our culture throughout history through movies, books, and radio.

Mission: Mars by Pascal Lee MISSION: MARS is a non-fiction children’s book on the Human Exploration of Mars. It takes young readers on a Basic Training Mission to become Future Mars Explorers. Comes with teaching guide.

Mars Apps Apps developed by NASA to have students to Be a Martian or act as the Curiosity rover to explore Mars.


Mars Related Activities for your Classroom

Mars Activities Teacher Resources and Classroom Activities  Activity book produced by NASA and Arizona State University containing activities on earth science, biology, physics, and engineering

Engineering in the Classroom  Engineering activities designed by NASA to teach the engineering design process