Sixth graders spent the fall learning about the solar system and space exploration as they gear up for their virtual mission to Mars, for which they design and build Mars landers and rovers. Inspired by her recent trip to Space Camp for Educators at the Marshal Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, sixth-grade science teacher Adel Collins also assigned her students the task of designing a space suit for an intergalactic “space worm” to regulate its body temperature during the extreme temperature swings of space travel.
NASA is redesigning the spacesuits it has used for decades. It has issued $3.5B worth of contracts to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace to design next-generation suits for the Artemis Moon Mission and the International Space Station. Before embarking on their project, the sixth graders learned about this initiative and NASA’s goal of making adjustable lighter suits that offer a greater range of motion for planetary exploration.
Students worked in teams of four to design their suits. They began by considering which materials would be most effective at maintaining temperature, functioning in wet and dry environments, which materials would be reusable, and how they would be held in place. For their “space worm,” students used water-filled, cylindrical, fidget toys with openings in the center to take a temperature reading. Students were given a budget for materials and could choose from aluminum foil, bubble wrap, cotton balls, felt, paper, rubber bands, tape, and styrofoam. “Students had to think about which materials conduct heat and which are good insulators,” says Adel. “And then the budget is very important because you better believe NASA works on a budget!” Each team designed an initial prototype and then tested it by placing their suited worm in a solar oven, tracking its vitals before and after with a temperature reading, and then repeating the process with exposure to a freezer. Students then took what they learned from their initial design, build, and testing round and incorporated that information into a final design.
Afterward, students reflected on what they had learned, writing about the materials that had worked best in insulating the space worm, how they would improve their spacesuit design, and how they might improve the testing environments. The project encouraged students to start thinking about the challenges of space travel and prepared them for building their Mars landers and rovers. “Students learned about the new space suits that are being designed and the money that NASA is putting into research and development and were able to simulate that process,” says Adel. “We don’t have their time or budget, but they looked at which materials would be beneficial, hypothesized, designed, and tested.”