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Jan 14, 2022 EXPLO Today Career Exploration Elevate

Mars Rover Course Uses Storytelling to Engage CPS Students

Astronauts, robots, and Martians — oh my! EXPLO uses storytelling to bring courses alive.

Abby Leigh Curtis

You’re sitting in your sixth-grade computer programming class when you suddenly get a transmission: "We have just received word from NASA that our Mars Observation and Research Satellite (MORS) has crashed on the Martian surface. MORS has been gathering data for three years critical to establishing a colony on the planet. We must recover that data. Design a rover capable of finding the MORS satellite and bringing it to an uplink station so its data can be transferred back to Earth.”

martian4 (1)

At EXPLO, storytelling is at the heart of every course — as is looking at “problems” as challenges (or even as opportunities). This summer, students in the adapted Mars Rover course used EXPLO's design process which is inspired by the Scrum framework, an adaptive approach in which designers break large challenges into shorter problem sets which they tackle in a series of design sprints, and a fast-moving prototyping process in which teams tackle a single problem from their problem chronology. With these tools, students stepped into the shoes of robotics engineers — in space!

The origin

EXPLO has captured the attention of educators around the country — educators that are seeking fresh, innovative ways to teach their students. One of those educators was Jameka McGraw-Byrd, Executive Director of Catholic Partnership Schools (CPS) in Camden, New Jersey. 

Our relationship with the Catholic Partnership Schools actually began with their co-founding organization, the Healey Education Foundation, which provides pro-bono consulting to dioceses and funding partners. CPS grew out of the Foundation’s consulting with the Diocese of Camden on how to revitalize their local schools.

Jameka and the CPS team reached out to EXPLO Elevate because they were interested in running a STEM-focused program as an add-on to the summer school day. “Christine and I had seen what EXPLO was doing in some Boston-area schools — we agreed we wanted to reach out and see if there was an opportunity there,” Jameka said.

“There’s an overemphasis on four-year degrees despite a huge shortage of professionals in STEM fields that only require a technical education or two-year degree,” shared Mark Greenlaw, Executive Director of EXPLO Elevate. “CPS is looking to change the way they teach to incorporate more career preparation.”

The Elevate team was eager to help. But what could be done in a few months’ time?

Moira Kelly, EXPLO President, had an idea: we could build upon our beloved EXPLO Senior course, Robotics — Mars Exploration. The imaginative, immersive learning experience was born of our love of robots and space and was developed in partnership with EXPLO alum Katie Stack Morgan, now Jet Propulsion Laboratory Deputy Project Scientist for NASA’s Perseverance rover.

“Jameka loved the idea, especially because of the storytelling element of the course,” Mark said. They wondered, though: Could the curriculum be modified to be suitable for 4th–8th-grade students and be made mobile? 

The preparation

Dave Hamilton, Director of Programs at EXPLO Elevate, was tasked with the challenge.  Since the Vex kits used at the Senior Program were no longer made, he had to find an alternative — and fast. 

Fortunately, LEGO had robotics kits that would work perfectly; but there was still work to be done. “We added our creative flair,” Mark said, “and made the necessary changes to make the content digestible — and exciting — for younger students.”

What changed? “Expectations, time, experience, and comprehension,” Dave said. 

With the wheels of curricular modification in motion, the next step was funding. The Domenica Foundation, an organization that partners with nonprofit organizations to improve the quality of life for underserved communities in South Jersey, thought the Mars Exploration course was a delightful opportunity for the students of CPS. As such, they donated both the LEGO kits and the laptops needed to make it happen. 

The course

martian riverbed (2)

Supplies? Check. Creative juices? Flowing. The EXPLO team was on it. 

“For the martian environment, we created an interactive gameboard which students or instructors could reconfigure and adapt to design any number of challenges,” Dave explained. The curriculum was challenge-based — and Dave emphasized the importance of differentiating challenges from problems. “The beauty of this curriculum is that there are nearly infinite solutions or answers...you’re never truly ‘done.’”

In the classroom, the teacher was more of a facilitator; after they were oriented, students worked together on the extraterrestrial challenges. “It was a new modality of learning for them,” Jameka said. 

The first challenge was to build a robot capable of recovering a satellite that has crashed on the Martian terrain — and deliver a satellite to an uplink so NASA can recover the data stored inside. 

"We have just received word from NASA that our Mars Observation and Research Satellite (MORS) has crashed on the Martian surface. MORS has been gathering data for three years critical to establishing a colony on the planet. We must recover that data. Design a rover capable of finding the MORS satellite and bringing it to an uplink station so its data can be transferred back to Earth."

The storytelling element of the course allowed students to enter a state of play. 

The “problem-storming” step of the Scrum-style design process to solve a problem provided a safe space for them to share their ideas (no matter how silly!). "Unlike in many typical science labs, here, there are no sequenced steps to follow in order to reach a prescribed outcome. Each student designs a unique approach to the challenge, observes how others are solving the same problem, and learns from the team around them," Dave explained.

“The students really enjoyed the novelty of it all — and having the agency and tools to problem-solve,” Jameka shared. 

Dave also pointed out the importance of considering empathy in curriculum design. “Kids have to care about something to get engaged — and different kids care about different things. That’s why the challenges are so varied...and why there are stories behind each one.” 

The outcome

At the conclusion of the course, CPS hosted a parent showcase; each team had a challenge to complete as their families looked on with pride. 

CPS students were also asked a series of questions based on a five-point Likert scale that utilized emojis to distinguish their feelings and perceptions. Of the 15 students participating in the class, 14 completed the survey. 

Their responses were inspiring: 

  • The percentage of students who were able to define what robots are grew from 79% to 100%.
  • The percentage of students who understood what computer programs are able to do jumped from 64% to 93%. 
  • The percentage of students who understood the job of an engineer grew from 57% to 93%. 
  • The percentage of students who understood how robots could be used in space exploration grew from 64% to 86%.
  • Students’ knowledge on how to design and build a robot jumped from 14% to 86%. 
  • Students’ ability to write a computer program jumped from 29% to 79%. 
  • Before taking the course, 64% of students noted they enjoyed engineering classes. After taking the course, this percentage jumped to 93%. 
  • The percentage of students interested in a future career in Engineering/STEM increased from 50 to 70%.
  • Students’ confidence in their skills in engineering/STEM jumped from 36% to 79%. 

The course was a resounding success — so much so, in fact, that Catholic Partnership Schools is running the course again this month. 

“Our plan is to eventually incorporate the course into our computer science curriculum,” Jameka said. “By the 6th grade, students will have the foundations of Scratch (coding) down. The robotics course is a natural next step and a way for them to apply their learning through trial and error, teamwork, and fun.” 

Our use of storytelling in curriculum design is far from random. Stories are the emotional glue that connects the dots between concepts. Much of what students remember from a learning experience is related to the feelings they experienced while learning — the excitement, the anticipation, the triumph — and those feelings stay with them long after the course is over. In this way, we foster a lifelong love of learning. In this way, we are uniquely EXPLO.

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Abby Leigh Curtis