Mars Mission robotics class challenges gifted students to design, program rovers

  • Rayph Teller didn’t know what to name his rover.

    The Pershing fifth-grader had been in Advanced Robotics classes once a week at Phelps Center for Gifted Education for three years, so designing, building and programming his rover wasn’t difficult. But he did know he wanted to give his robot a name.

    Rayph is one of 35 third- through fifth-graders currently participating in Dee Kerr’s Mars Mission Advanced Robotics class. Four sections of the class are following a Mindstorms Mars Mission book, which poses challenges for students to complete based on real potential problems for a colony on Mars’ surface, Kerr says.

    “The first challenge our students are working on right now is that there’s a dust storm that has damaged a power station and they have to use their robot to fix it,” she said. “But our overall goal is for our students to be able to design and build a working robot and program it to successfully complete certain challenges.”

    Evan Siever, a fifth-grader at Disney, was making small, systematic tweaks to the programming of his robot so that it would go in a predefined path. It was a painstaking process, but he enjoyed making all the little changes, he said.

    “This is my favorite part of my day,” said Evan. “When I grow up, I want to be an astronomer and engineer, so this allows me to create. And I absolutely love LEGOs. I love to build things, so this is fun.”


    The rovers are built using components of the LEGO Mindstorms Robotics kits. Phelps has 48 robotics kits, which are brought out for the second part of each 2-hour weekly class. But every class begins with a lesson about space exploration.

    “One of the teachers at Phelps, her husband is an engineer and back in 2010, he actually worked on part of the Curiosity rover that is functioning on Mars right now,” said Kerr. “So he actually came in and showed up some pictures and talked about the rover. The kids, they love checking the NASA website every day and finding out what Curiosity is up to.”

    Students watched videos of the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy in class, and Kerr hopes to be able to take her Mars Mission classes to the National Weather Service to learn more about forecasting, atmospheric conditions, and how it relates to Mars’ atmosphere.

    “Space travel isn’t necessarily within my comfort zone as a teacher,” she says. “But it’s been so fun to learn about space exploration right along with my kids. Gifted education and space exploration, it’s all about taking risks. It’s about learning about perseverance, and challenges, and how to conquer those challenges.”

    After finishing up programming work, Rayph holds his rover out to show it to his teacher.

    “I’ve decided on a name,” he says confidently. “I’m going to name it Decision. There’s a Curiosity rover, and there’s an Opportunity rover. So I like Decision.”