Teacher studies robot.

Fundamentals of Lunar Exploration

"The Search for Lunar Ice"

The materials available on this website have been used for two purposes: 1) professional development for educators and 2) as a two-week summer course for 8th and 9th graders.

Professional Development for Educators: Our group has offered professional development in three formats: three-day workshops, intensive two-week, three-credit, graduate course and the traditional 15-week, three-credit, graduate course. We have worked with teachers at all K-12 grade levels. The primary difference between the course for teachers and the delivery to students is that we spend a significant amount of time with educators discussing pedagogy and potential uses in the classroom.

Summer Course for Students: We have offered this activity as a two-week course for gifted and talented 8th graders and for 9th graders. With minor modifications to make the challenge more challenging, it could be used in high school as well.


Choice of robots: We do not endorse any particular type of robot. We have used the BOE-Bot, by Parallax, Inc., and we have used Lego Mindstorms. Our goal is to have students design and implement robots that use sensors to answer a question. As long as the type of robot you choose has sensors, it is likely that you will be able to conduct the mission.

Simulated Lunar Surface: Our LunarLand is 150 cm x 150 cm. We've had the best luck with carpet squares and styrofoam mountains. We purchased styrofoam rings of various sizes from the local craft store. The topographic maps come out better if the mountains have very steep sides. In some of the pictures below you'll see some plastic mountains - they do not work as well. We ended up painting our mountains to be dark, like the carpet. It doesn't really matter what color they are, as long as they are significantly different than the ice. We use three LunarLands for a class of twenty participants.

Full Course

Using the Course Materials
As with any course, the syllabus changes a little every time it is taught. Please consider the table below as a guide to the implementation of this class. The guide deals mainly with the written materials and does not go into the many rich discussions that are an intergral part of the class. For example, each class begins with either a discussion of a chapter of I, Robot or another topic of current interest, and each class ends with a 20-minute journal entry in response to a writing prompt. The guide assumes that each class is three hours long.

Also, because we are fortunate enough to be near a NASA Center, we usually take one class period and go visit NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Class Activity Documents
1 Introduction

Measurement Basics: Introduces the all-important concept of measurement uncertainty.

Measurement Basics Worksheet
Measurement Spreadsheet (Optional)
2 Landing Site Selection: Students take the role of a contractor for NASA and must determine whether there are craters large enough in which to land a spacecraft. They search the web for full-disk lunar images. A full disk is necessary because they must measure the diameter of the Moon and the diamter of the craters. Typically, the instructor gives a brief review of using simple proportions. Landing Site Worksheet
Measurement Spreadsheet (Optional)
3 Progamming Basics: Introduce loops and if-then statements. Build Rover. This version of the syllabus assumes that we are using Lego Mindstorms. The kits come with instructions on how to build the rover. We do this activity in the beginning, even though the rover doesn't come into play until later, because it is easy to do and gives the teachers confidence that they can, indeed, build a robot.

Discuss I, Robot (Asimov) assignment. In the two week course, we read a chapter each night. In the semester-long course, we read a chapter per week.

Tic Tac Toe Programming
Sorting Tennis Balls
I, Robot Discussion Questions
Book Report Assignment
4 Principles of Remote Exploration (PREP): An end-to-end simulation of a robotic discovery mission. This activity uses teams of six, assigns everyone a critical job and uses a human as the Bot. The point of the exercise to to model the activities they will be doing with the robots, without the cute little robots getting in the way of the students' thinking. We usually use something tasty as the lunar sample.

The Moonscape should be in a different physical location from Mission Control. We used to use a networked webcam to broadcast activity on the Moonscape, but now we just use laptops and Skype or OoVoo.

With this activity, the Mission Debriefing is critical. Participants should discuss what the challenges were, and how they overcame them. For teachers, they should add an additional piece that discusses how to use this in their own classroom, including identifying challenges to implementation. This should be prepared for homework, and delivered as an oral presentation at the beginning of the next class.

PREP Worksheets
5 Mission Debriefings: oral presentations.

Rover Testing: Now that the participants have a little feel for programming, they can program their rover to follow a set path. We put tape on the floor and give them the dimensions. It is good to remind them here about the calibration activity in PREP, the mission from last class with the human Bot. They need to calibrate the rover, and then use that information in the program to follow the tape. Data tables are always encouraged.

Rover Testing Worksheet
6 Introduction to Topography: What's in the Box? Participants discover what is in the box by sliding a sticked into the gridded holes in the top of the box. These boxes can be purchased or made out of shoeboxes.

Introduction to Topographic Mapping: Discusses how satellite mapping works and relates it to how the participant will map LunarLand. An activity called Needle in the Haystack is embedded in this presentation. This activity demonstrates the implications of limited spatial resolution. The participants should be working through the exercise along with the presentation.

Following this activity, we do a demonstration of the process using a hand-held ultrasound motion detector. The robots we use come with an ultrasound detector, so it relates directly to what the students will see. Before we had robots with ultrasound sensors, we made the maps by hand. Here's the link to that topography mapping simulation. We include it here because it has a discussion of education standards and the instructions on how to build the PVC frame.Simulating making topographic maps from space using an ultrasound motion detector.

What's in the Box? Worksheet
7 Review Mission Concept: remind participants about the basic concpet of the mission: they will build a map of LunarLand to help them program their rovers to search for lunar ice. In the course for teachers, instructions for the final Mission Report can be handed out now so that they will be prepared. Design, build and test the TopoBots: If you have the resources, the participants get fresh kits to build the TopoBots. Otherwise, they have to tear down the rover. Introduction to the Engineering Design Process: This is an important process for the participants to learn. Their inclination is to start building without thinking. Insist that they slow down, review the design requirements and make sketches.

We found it helpful to set up three poles, and let them test their TopoBots with one cardboard box under each pole as the landscape feature. Any rectangular object will make a nice, sharp feature in the line plot they generate from their test data. The biggest problem we have found is that the TopoBots will sway if not stable, causing the data to be too messy. The students need to find a way to stabilize their TopoBot and keep it from swaying.

Once they complete a successful test run and plot their data in Excel, they may begin to map LunarLand. Note: the poles are moved in 5-cm steps after each pass (orbit). We have found that placing a coin on the current orbit mark helps keep track of where they are. They use this Excel Macro to convert the string of 900 numbers produced by the TopoBot to 30 x 30 grid that Excel can use to make a surface plot. Open the Excel file, cut and paste the 900 numbers into the file, run the macro, and save the file under a new name. Building the TopoBots and using them to map LunarLand tends to introduce a spread in rate of completion among teams. Building this robot will be the most difficult task they have encountered in the class thus far. To provide some relief, it is at the end of this class that we introduce debate topics. The debates take place in the first half of the next class.

TopoBot Design Requirements
TopoBot Testing Worksheet
Excel Macro to Convert 900 numbers to 30 x 30 grid

Mission Report Instructions

8 Debates: Robots in Society. Sample topics include:
  • The increased use of robots benefits society.
  • In space, there are certain jobs that must be done by humans.
  • Robotic pets are better than real pets. This one brings out the emotions!

The second half of class is devoted to completing the mapping of LunarLand. If some groups finish mapping before the end of class, they may begin the Engineering Design Process for a rover that will search for lunar ice.

Debate Rules
9 & 10 Design, build and test the rover: The participants should now be in possession of a topographic map of LunarLand. The instructors should place samples of the "ice" on pieces of the same carpet that comprises the surface of LunarLand. Using test readings of the light sensor on the ice sample and their maps, the students should determine the design requirements for the rover. For example, it needs to fit between the mountains, and the sensor needs to be afixed to the rover pointing downward. The participants may test the rover on pieces of carpet, but they may not test in LunarLand itself.

For 8th and 9th graders, we provide a top-down photograph of LunarLand to augment the topographic map.

This is also where timing becomes more difficult to predict. In the intensive, two-week courses, both for teachers and students, they seem to make faster progress (perhaps because they maintain momentum from day to day). When class meets once per week for three hours, it takes longer for the participants to complete the building and testing of the robots. It could take up to two additional three-hour sessions to complete all testing and redesign, for them to be ready to execute the Mission.

11 & 12 Mission Challenge: Search for Lunar Ice: Everyone has been preparing for this! We use three LunarLands to keep it moving. Typically everyone completes the first challenge with little or no difficulty, becuase they have all learned how to do this when they programmed the rover to follow the tape. In the second level, they must discover the ice with their sensors. This takes longer, but typically everyone completes this task. The third level, where they must find the ice then return to home base, is considerably more dificult. Not everyone completes this third level challenge. Instructions for the Challenges
13 Mission Debriefing: As with the human robot activity, the Mission Debriefing is critical. Each team should prepare an oral presentation that reviews the challenegs and the strategies that the teams used to overcome them. In the course for teachers, each team is also responsible for preparing a written Mission Debriefing Report. This is a significant document that is a large part of their grade for the class, comprising descriptions of all of the steps in the mission process.

Breakdown: Participants take apart their robots (they are usually quite sad to do this), and sort the pieces into the kits. This can be a social time to decompress after the stress of the missions.

Mission Report Instructions

Supported through funding from NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate

Please direct questions on the material or requests for assistance with implementation to Susan.Hoban @ nasa.gov

Return to NASA's BEST Students Homepage
Updated 4 September 2009, sh

Teachers watch rover about to tip over.