Science in the Middle

doing 6th grade science – outside the box!

Pacing to Finish Strong: A Best Last Week

on June 14, 2016

Everyone knows that a runner paces herself so she can finish a race strong. Pacing in teaching to me for the last decade or so has not really worked out that way, mainly because I could not set my own cadence. Pacing was dictated by the county. The all-important dates of standardized testing mandate that all content be taught prior to any tests. Typically, this leaves a month or more of remediation whether needed or not, wasted time, busy work, or movies…or does it?

Every year I’ve tried to incorporate some fun STEM activities in the closing weeks of school that may or may not spiral back to the previously taught units. This year, my partner Missy Doss and I implemented a terrific unit – my best last week* – in my final year at Kittredge Magnet School.

Choosing a strand was easy: Space. It’s the student’s overwhelming favorite compared with our other units, perhaps ingrained due to the 3 day trip we take to Space Camp in Huntsville. I used many existing and classic resources and adapted them to a Mars theme, since the next great goal set for the Space Program is Mars 2020.  

The first activity we chose was a 3 day design challenge for the Egg Drop – building a container to protect an egg when dropped from a height. This was not the first time my students have done the egg drop, but it is the first time I have strung several activities together with the cohesive Mars theme. The students designed a Mars Capsule to protect their astronaut (egg) from damage when landing on Mars. There was an inventory of resources and students could only use a certain amount of materials. Choices included water bottles, cardboard, string, plastic, tape, and more. (I’ve learned in previous years that bubble wrap is not a good choice, so this year, we did not use it.)

To begin, we watched the amazing engineering JPL video Seven Minutes of Terror to get students’ brains engaged and thinking.


They worked in teams of two or three, choosing materials (without actually having them yet), making a sketch, and naming their space craft with a acronym.  The design phase the day before allowed me to inventory that I had enough of each material on hand, as I had them tally as a class how many of each item was needed. Fortunately, I only needed to gather a few more empty water bottles!  I kept a google doc for names projected so everyone could see the team names. Here is mine from this year.

UVOI0403The second day, all materials were set up at the “Phobos Shopping Mall.” This can be seen in my slide presentation. Groups built their models for the remainder of the hour with everything except their egg. Rovers had to have a way to get the egg inside, so this was a design challenge, too. This took the full class period. Students entered the mass of their lander in the google doc as lightest successful mission was one of the awards.

IMG_2696On Day 3, we had about 10 minutes of prep before we went outside for the drop on Mars!  Needed: ladder, basket and rope, a hula hoop for a target as well as red butcher paper underneath. A few things made this orderly, fun and successful for two classes outdoors at a time:

The only one allowed on the roof of the school was me.  A basket and rope allowed students to place their lander and I would reel it up to the roof.

We had a seating area – we have three legged fold up stools, and seated students are more focused and on task outdoors. It was important to pay attention because there was voting for several project awards within each class!

Eggs were not kept after a successful landing – they were given back to the teachers, and we had a large trash can outside for any unsuccessful and messy landings!IMG_2727

When we went inside afterwards, the reflection was written and papers collected.Students sure learned a lot from seeing other designs and watching many other landers be dropped.

The next problem solving challenge we embarked on took place in a larger group of 6 to 7 students. Adapting from a NASA lesson on surviving on the moon, and @lorigreentx presentation, students had to choose the most important items to take with them from place to place on Mars. My resources are all below.

I produced a short summary video in which you can see the discussion among students to select their materials on Mars.  I made three color copies of each item and laminated them to pass out in groups. Click here or see below to see the video, made on my phone in iMovie.

For the next couple of days, we had a choice, making water filtration designs and testing them, adapting several resources from NASA: here and one from Northwestern University here, or viewing the movie The Martian to compare what the main character, Mark Watney, actually uses compared with their choices from the previous day. SInce I had the movie, the obstacles were parental permission and the movie rating. You can see the rating on The Martian from Common Sense Media. Personally, I thought the movie was fantastic, and I polled the students to learn that only a few had seen it. I get that – going to the movies is expensive!

After the movie, we had a Lego play day – building Rovers! All could participate in “groups” of 3,2 or 1 and thanks to my former teaching partner, we have a huge chest of lego bricks to go around.

So, I did end up with a movie in my last week plus, but no regrets. The students learned a lot, collaborated, and had plenty of hands on and choice. Several students declared The Martian “the best movie ever!” as well. Next year, however, I am determined to incorporate that water filtration challenge!


Click here to access my student sheet for the Mars Egg Drop and reflection. Click here to access my Google Slides presentation to introduce the unit, first inspired by a Twitter colleague @lorigreentx from #scitlap – I adapted her presentation, which is found here..

*week was more like a week and a half.


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