The Red Planet: Learning about Mars Missions

By: Meghan Thoreau, OSU Extension Educator, Community Development & STEM, Pickaway County

Access the Red Planet: learning about Mars Missions presentation here.

Students learned about the Red Planet and the history of Mars exploration that date back to the early 1960s. We saw the first close-up photographs of Mars lunar-type impact craters in 1964 from NASA’s Mariner 4 and started studying its solar winds. Six decades later we are witnessing another phase of global exploration of Mars. Last July 2020 approximately 7 months ago three spacecraft launched to Mars.

Why did they all launch around the same time?

Launches to Mars are best attempted every 26-months when our two planets align in their orbits for the shortest trip.

February’s Mars Missions

The first mission to reach Mars was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Hope Mission. The country has never launched a mission beyond Earth’s orbit before and hopes to drive a new economy around science and not oil. Hope’s pro entered Mars’ orbit on February 9, 2021, and will stay in orbit between 12,430 and 26,700 miles above the surface, completing a revolution of Mars once every 55-hours studying the atmosphere of Mars and the AMrtian weather.

UAE photo source:

The second interplanetary mission to reach Mars came from China’s Tianwen-1 (Heavenly Questions) robotic spacecraft consisting of an orbiter, deployable camera, lander, and rover. The spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit on February 10, 2021. China may become the third nation to reach the surface of Mars! The science objectives its mission hopes to achieve:

  • create a geological map of Mars
  • explore the characteristics of the soil and potentially locate water-ice deposits
  • analyze the surface material composition
  • investigate the atmosphere and climate at the surface
  • understand the electromagnetic and gravitational fields of the planet

Photo sources: and

The NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover landed in Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, 2021, and will search for signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars. The rover has a drill to collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, then store them in sealed tubes for pickup by a future mission that would ferry them back to Earth for detailed analysis.

Perseverance will also test technologies to help pave the way for future human exploration of Mars, including deploying the first Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars.

Earth Benefits from Space Exploration

Private companies and government space programs are shaping the future of space exploration. The research and engineering effects going into these missions have a direct benefit to Earth as many of the technologies and uses can also be applied here on Earth. Read this Culture Trip article, The Earthly Benefits of a Mission to Mars, to learn more.

Hands-on Virtual Mars Base Camp Challenges

Each club member received Mars Base Camp Kit and together we explored Mars challenges together virtually through Zoom. The Landing Zone Surveyor challenge allows youth to discover features on the surface of Mars that are important, selecting a safe landing site, learning about the Martian landscape, and determine where to set up a future base camp.

NASA lives and breaths the engineering design process. There have been over a dozen surface landing attempts to land on the surface of Mars, but with each attempt, a learning process occurs through the successes, failures, and re-engineering for future space missions.

Image from

Together we all dropped parachutes onto a grided Mars surface. This involved some skills and unknown variables in the parachute deployment. There were several possible outcomes, some failures, and some successful rover landings.

Together we identifying the different landing sites both visually through photographs and imagery. We shared reading out loud the associated landing site cards and gained a better understanding of the varied Martian landscape. We learned a lot of essential geography terms, such as channel, dune, fault, ice cap, impact crater, lander, lava flow, orbiter, remote sensing, rover, and volcano, and learned how they compared to the geography of Earth.

STEM club member participating virtually in Landing Zone Surveyor Challenge

The second Mars challenged we tackled was the Red Planet Odyssey. This activity involved learning more about simple circuits, simple motors, power, mechanical gears, and how they all work together with using the engineering design process to build a STEM rover and solve basic mechanical problems.

Simple Circuits, LEDs, and Paper Circuit Design Challenges

By: Meghan Thoreau, OSU Extension Educator, Community Development & STEM, Pickaway County

Simple Circuits with Meghan Thoreau, OSU Extension Educator, and Judy Walley, Teays Valley Chemistry Teacher. Full presentation link:

Why Understanding Simple Circuits is Important?

Basic circuit knowledge is important for many different disciplines, engineering, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. It’s also useful knowledge around this time of year when you may need to repair a string of old holiday lights? Understanding and building simple circuits show us important concepts learned in school that can describe useful real-world systems, like devices we use every day, cell phones, light switches, Chromebooks, cars, etc.

The electric charge that flows through your house is called your electric circuits. This carries useful energy through your house that you can transform into other forms of energy to do various tasks. The US standard household circuit has an effective voltage that takes 120-volts. Volts represent the energy per unit charge. We discussed these basic building blocks of simple circuits in STEM Club this month. Our hands-on simple circuit design challenge uses 3-volt lithium batteries. Before jumping into our design challenges we’ll cover a few basic circuitry concepts and energy principles.

For program presentation, click here.

Conservation of Energy, First Law of Thermodynamics

The conservation of energy principle was discovered and published by Julius Robert von Mayer in 1842. Mayer was a German physicianchemist, and physicist and one of the founders of thermodynamics. However, there were many others working in the field that made significant contributions, such as, James Prescott Joule, Hermann von HelmholtzAlessandro Volta, and Benjamin Thomson.

The principle of conservation of energy is an effective tool in solving problems and understanding how different forms of energy directly impact our lives. There are also benefits to this principle. These include recycling of materials, lower energy costs for consumers, less pollution due to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and less harm to animals and the environment. We watched a short video, from Two Minute Classroom, that explained the basic concepts of how energy transforms itself into other forms and never truly disappears or is destroyed.

Below are 10 common types of energy:

Image source:

Atoms and Electrons

Judy Walley led students through the basic concepts of atoms and electrons, because, without the flow of electrons, we have no electric circuit to work with.

Screenshot of our recorded club meeting where Judy Walley explains the basic concepts of atoms and electrons.

Walley also explained the chemistry of a battery and how chemical reactions occur inside the battery that causes an imbalance or a build-up of electrons (-) on one side of the battery over the other, hence why one side or one terminal of the battery is negative (-) and the other positive (+). We also introduced the basic materials for our hands-on design challenges and explain how a battery works.

Screenshot from our virtual simple circuit presentation.

How a Battery Works

Batteries are important to everyday life. Batteries are essential to most electrical devices. They exist in our cars, cell phones, laptops, and other electronic appliances, and serve as critical backup sources of electricity in telecommunications, public transportation, and medical devices. A battery is essentially a container full of chemicals that produce electrons (-). Inside the battery itself, a chemical reaction produces the electrons.

The battery is a device that stores chemical energy and converts it to electrical energy. The chemical reactions in a battery involve the flow of electrons from one material (electrode) to another, through an external circuit. The flow of electrons provides an electric current that can be used to do work. In our case, students use copper tape to build a paper circuit to create light energy with an LED. Below depicts the inner wors of a battery.

Screenshot of how a battery works from our virtual simple circuit presentation.

The students learned that a battery has three main parts: an anode (-), a cathode (+), and the electrolyte that separates the two terminal ends on the battery. We discussed the chemical reaction happening inside the battery that causes electrons (-) to buildup on one side of the battery causing one end to be negatively charged (-) and the other end positively charged (+). This buildup causes an imbalance of electrons (-), that want to travel to the other side of the battery, but can’t move freely until a conductive circuit is completely looped for the electrons to travel through; in our case, the conduit is copper tape.

When a circuit is complete, or a loop created, the electrons will flow through the conductive paths racing to reach the other side of the battery terminal. When the electrons flow through the loop, the chemical energy inside the battery is transformed into electrical energy running through the circuit. When all electrons (-) make it to the other side, the battery stops working. All of the electric energy was transformed into other forms of energy.

Electrical energy allows us to do work by transforming energy into other forms. We use LEDs in our paper circuit design challenge because it’s a simple way to show how electric energy is transformed or converted into light energy. We could replace the LED with a simple motor and the motor would convert electrical energy into kinetic.

Screenshot of simple circuit components and electricity concepts from our virtual simple circuit presentation.

What’s a Diode?

Both LEDs and motors can easily be added to simple circuits. However, LEDs are somewhat more restrictive than motors, because LEDs are diodes. A diode only allows current to flow in one direction. From the cathode (-) leg of the LED through the anode (+) leg. Note that the anode on a battery is negatively charged, but the anode on an LED is positively charged! The correct way to connect an LED legs to the battery terminals is positive to positive/anode to cathode and negative to negative/ cathode to anode. Study the image above if this is confusing. If the LED or battery are flipped in the wrong configuration then no current or electrons flow through the LED because the diode only allows for current to flow in one direction.

Image source:

A motor does not have a diode, therefore current can flow in either direction, and depending on how the motor is connected to the battery will decide what direction the motor turns left/right, or moves forwards/backward.

Image source:

Electric Circuit Design Challenges

As a virtual group, we challenged ourselves with a few NearPod activities to reinforce our electricity concepts before beginning our hands-on paper circuit challenges. A paper circuit is a functioning electronic circuit built on a paper surface instead of a printed circuit board (PCB). Projects can range from greeting cards to origami, to traditional art such as paintings or drawings. STEM totes went home with the students and included paper circuit design challenges and supplies.

Supply List

  • LED
  • Conductive copper tape
  • Plain card stock, or templates printed on card stock
  • 3-V coin cell battery
  • Tape (not included)
  • Binder Clip

Other useful items: multicolor/print card stock, glue stick, scissors, pencils, markers

We went through two paper circuit-build challenges with an independent bonus design challenge. The first design is depicted below. It had a basic road map for us to follow, which we added labels to ensure our understanding of which direction the electrons were flowing and which direction the current was flowing as well as how to position and connect the battery and LED to the circuit correctly.

The second

Once you start learning the basics of paper circuit design you can explore more crafty designs to create circuit cards for all occasions and topics. A few ideas shared at our club meeting:

STEM Professionals Panel: learn, engage, and explore four STEM career pathways

Get ready STEM Club, because we have four guest professionals coming to join us for some lively discussion on their STEM careers, life experiences, and tips when considering working towards a STEM Career. Save the date: Thursday, 21 May 2020 @ 4:00 P.M. (Zoom meeting details are found in our Elementary STEM Club’s Google Classroom.) Click here to watch the recorded club meeting. Our panel includes the following:

WILLIAM MILLER-LITTLE is a M.D. Ph.D. Medical Candidate & Researcher at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Department of Pathology/Immunology actively works in a research laboratory.

MELISSA SMITH is a Phlebotomist & Clinical Lab Supervisor Technician at OSU Medical Center, Outpatient Care East Lab in Columbus, OH (and STEM Club mom.) 

KARINA HANKENFOF is a Product Engineer & Lab Technician, specialized in materials and mechanical systems with Cincinnati Testing Labs in Cincinnati, OH (and Teays Valley alumni.)

CLAY BURGETT is a Chemist & Information Technology Manager at the American Chemical Society for the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society in Columbus, Ohio.

COSI Science Festival’s Meet A Scientist Library Youth Program

STEM Club students, please take advantage of this free virtual library youth program made possible through a community collaboration between COSI, DuPont (Circleville), Pickaway County Library, and OSU Extension. Pre-register now!

COSI Science Festival’s Meet A Scientist Youth Program, Saturday, May 9, 2020, 11:00 AM – Peggy Scott, a Dupont polymer scientist, and Christy Yu, a Dupont quality engineer, share their personal experiences and passion for STEM careers to youth and their families. Learn about polymer chemistry, science careers, and engage in a virtual polymer-scavenger hunt from the comfort of your home. Pre-registration is required for this free educational event, go to, After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information and passcode to join the meeting. We’ll also send a reminder email prior to the event. #COSISciFest

For more information please email, Here is the recording of the Polymer Scientist program! 

Engineering a Catapult and Creative Writing Challenge

By: Meghan Thoreau, OSU Extension Educator

This September Teays Valley elementary students learned about catapults and the engineering design process which involves problem solving and building solutions through teamwork, designing, prototyping, testing, rebuilding, and continuing to improve and reevaluate their design solutions.

Students learned the basic catapult design concepts and components. They learned about force, accuracy, precision, and angels – and made engineering connections – engineers apply science, writing, and math concepts early into the design process and prototyping before they’re ready to build final products to meet their clients’ needs.

They also learned how force affects the motion of a projectile, the difference between accuracy and precision, as well as learned the optimum angle for launching a projectile the farthest distance, being at 45 degrees.

Catapults may be an old technology, but engineers still apply many design concepts into modern applications that need to store potential energy to propel a payload. Examples such as clay pigeon shooting or more complex in aircraft catapult take off for short runways.

Our catapult project was a two-part challenge: 1) apply the engineering design process to building a catapult, and 2) use the catapults in a creative writing challenge. The students worked in groups moving through target stations.

They used their catapults to hit a dynamic target that gave them points, letters, words, and images. The students had to add up their points, look up new vocabulary with the acquired letters, add the words and phrases collected, and finally handwrite a group creative writing narrative that they read out loud to their peers.

Skills Applied:

  • Engineering concepts
  • Geometry/Angles
  • Visual Motor
  • Bimanual
  • Math/Addition
  • Alphabetization
  • Handwriting
  • Creative Thinking/Storytelling
  • Team Communication
  • Oral Presentation

*Pictures from Teays Valley Elementary Students registered for 2019-2020 STEM Club Program.