The Last of the Rovers

It seems as if this Rover project has taken forever!  Like the kids, I was often frustrated these last few weeks as we tried out our Little Bits, tweaked our circuits, and built and rebuilt (and rebuilt!) the insides of our Rovers so that they would work!  It took lots of hard work, lots of thinking outside the box, lots of trial and error.  At the end, the kids were aghast that three weeks worth of work went into one minute and thirty seconds of moving Rover.  We talked about how with the real Mars Rovers, there are years and years of work involved and sometimes, the Rovers get all the way to Mars and don’t work right!

Despite all the work and all the tweaking that was involved, I think that this was a great learning experience for all.  We learned about the Mars Rover, we learned about electrical circuits, and we learned about how hard scientists and engineers work!  As it has been the last few weeks, our classes were very labor intensive, for me too, so there haven’t been as many pictures as usual.


So finally, everyone got to test their Rovers, but there were other neat things that went on in EXCEL as well.  Everyone started their day with a brain teaser.  Some of them were harder than others, depending on the grade level and how well I thought the students could incorporate figures of speech into their abstract thinking patterns.  This was the first and second grade rebus puzzle.lastrover18

Then in all but the fifth grade, we did a little terrafirming to get our landscapes ready to build our Mars colony.  We did this by first filling our pans with sand.

Then we cut up pieces of copper sponge.

Lastly, we added water to the top of our sand and copper.  With a week’s time and a little oxidation, our Mars landscape will be nice a red by next week!

Third and fourth grade, who raced their rovers last week, worked on soda straw rockets.  We used our fine motor skills to build our tiny little rockets, blew into a straw to launch our rockets, and then measured the distance our rockets flew.  We converted the feet into inches and did two distance trials.  Then we learned about how to find the average of the two distances to declare our winner!

Next week, we’ll finish our Mars colony and be done with our unit on Mars.  We’ll start our new unit, a STEAM unit, week after next!



This week in EXCEL, we got to work on our long-awaited project, our Mars Rovers!  But first, we needed to warm up our brains so that we were ready to tackle some tricky, new problems!

In first and second grades, we started with a version of Mars Bingo.  Each board was filled with different terms related to our study of Mars.  Instead of calling out the word, however, I called out a definition, a clue, or a critical thinking question.  For example, instead of calling out “carbon dioxide,” I gave them the clue, “the reason that human life can not survive on Mars is because the atmosphere is made up of 95% of this element.”


The third, fourth, and fifth graders experienced a new kind of puzzle this week, the matchstick challenge.  Some of us were very good at this kind of puzzle (Adelle was the master!), and others of us struggled and wanted immediate answers.  This is something that we are working on in EXCEL daily–persevering when we don’t know the answer right away and being ok with failure.  These are two important life skills!


After our brains were warmed up and ready to go, we reviewed electricity by watching a fun video, Finding Stuff Out:  Electricity.  If you haven’t checked out this series of videos, you should!  The host is a student, and he answers questions that every child has in ways that every child can understand!

After we were warmed up (and tired of waiting!) we got started on our Little Bits and making our Rovers work.  First I let them fidget with no direction.  I knew their natural curiosity would get the best of them and they would do it while I tried to teach, so I let them have a go at it independently first to try to prevent that from happening.


After we had some time to “play,” we worked on building specific circuits to see how the light sensor, microphone, DC motor, and counter worked.  Even though not all of these modules would be in our rovers, it was an important step in making sure we built our circuits correctly.


Now it was time to put build our rover circuits, put them into our rovers, test them out, and make adjustments to our design.  What followed was organized chaos as we tested, adjusted, tested again, adjusted again, and in general realized that engineers must be very patient!  Because my presence was needed to help guide the students, I got very few pictures.  Only third and fourth grades got around to actually having the rover races.  The other grade levels will compete this week!


Next week, we will be finishing up our unit on Mars by planning and building a building for an imaginary Mars colony!

Playing Catch-Up

Finally a week in which everyone got to come to EXCEL and every class had it’s entire time with no interruptions.  No hurricanes, no mental math, no conferences!  Since every class had lots of time, we took full advantage of it and got everyone caught up and at the same point in our learning unit!

First and second graders started with a review of electricity.  They took the matching cards that I used as a diagnostic assessment earlier in the unit and tried to match them again.  I am happy to say that they did a great job, and showed me they had really learned a lot about electricity.  Surprisingly, the first graders did better than anyone!

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The third, fourth, and fifth graders began their EXCEL time learning all about electricity with a Magic School Bus video and the interactive web site, Blobz Guide to Circuits (Check it out…it’s great!)  Then, the older kids set about making their own circuits.

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By the time that fifth grade came to EXCEL, I realized that turning off the lights made for much better pictures!

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Then it was time to start on our rovers!  First we had to make the shell.  The younger kids used cereal boxes, while the fifth graders make their own boxes.  We designed, painted, cut, and assembled wheels and axles.

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This week, we’ll build our actual circuits that will power our rovers, test our rovers, and compete in a timed challenge.  What fun!!


This week in EXCEL, only the first and second graders got a full class time.  On Tuesday, I had a dr. appointment that ran late and I wasn’t able to be there for the morning session for 3rd and 4th graders.  On Thursday, I was in a gifted education conference, getting some great ideas for our upcoming classes.  Hopefully next week we will have no hurricanes and no interruptions!

First and second graders started with their brain teasers, as usual.  This week, however, we challenged our brains in a different way as we tackled Hink Pinks.  Hink Pinks are word puzzles in which students are given clues and they are to come up with answers that are two rhyming words.  For example, a grumpy father would be a sad dad.  These were challenging, as the students had to use their brains in a new way and think about the different words that they have learned or heard.


After our brains were warmed up and ready to learn, we reviewed what we knew about electricity and learned about circuits.  First we watched a BrainPop video and took a quiz.


Then we completed a matrix using statements and pictures about the different kinds of circuits.


After lunch, we worked on making our own circuits.  Our materials were paper clips, copper brads, electrical tape, tiny LED lightbulbs, and 3V button batteries.  This was a sometimes frustrating, sometimes exciting, and always challenging activity.  They should have come away from this lesson with a better understanding of electricity and circuits and a good knowledge base for our next activity, building our Little Bits Mars Rovers!


One of the hardest things about this activity, and actually one of the hardest things about being in EXCEL is realizing that experiments don’t always work the first time.  Failure is one of the ways that we learn, and sometimes even though we do our best, we must try again.  I think, though, that everyone had fun and got at least one light bulb to light up!

Electrifiying EXCEL!

What a crazy few weeks we have had leading up to Fall Break.  This past week, third and fourth grades didn’t have a chance to come to EXCEL due to our hurricane days, and fifth grade was making up for the day that we missed last week.  So each class did something different this week, and it looks as if it’s going to be that way next week as well!

First and second grade started with our mystery.  In our mystery this week, we had to figure out who had a February birthday by completing a logic puzzle.  Logic puzzles are tricky for most kids, and some of my youngest thinkers had some difficulty figuring this one out, so we did it together.  It’s an adjustment, learning how to think in this way, and many of us are not used to not understanding things the first time, so this was hard all around!


As an introduction to our learning about electricity this week, we started with an experiment.  First we rubbed a piece of plastic wrap with a paper towel, and then we watched what happened as we put the plastic wrap onto our rice krispies.  We made static electricity!


Before we got started, we had to first find out what we knew.


Part of establishing our prior knowledge was a matching game where we tried to match terms and definitions related to electricity.


Our next step was to watch a Magic School Bus about electricity, and then play a fun game about circuits.  You can find the neat games we played  here!

I had planned for us to start building circuits during this class period, but Hurricane Irma had different plans, and only one of our packages of supplies arrived.


Instead, we built models of circuits out of legos!


Fifth graders started out with one of the favorites from last year:  hinky pinkies!


Then we went to the computer lab to turn our drafts of our Mars Colonization brochures into the final copies!


After watching a short video that chronicled the Mars exploration program of the last 50 years, we got to work making our edible Mars rovers.  First, we planned.


Then we created!  Most people wanted to work by themselves.  I suspect this is because they knew that they could eat their creations after they were finished!


Some of us wanted to work together!


And some of us learned the value of sticking with a simple idea! (He wasn’t really upset!)


With all of our supplies now safely at school, we’ll start working on our circuits and eventually our remote-controlled Mars rovers!

Researching Rovers!

What a fun week in EXCEL as we researched and reinvented the Mars rovers!  We started our day warming up our brains with our mysteries.  In first and second grade, we worked on cracking a secret code.  Third and fourth grades had worked on this last week, so it was fun to see the different ways that my younger thinkers approached the problem.  First we solved one together…Rover24

Then we picked sticks to divide into groups to work on our mystery.


Next we watched a video about the huge amount of money that the United States spends on Mars exploration, especially the rovers.  After the video, I split them up into groups and they listed the pros and cons of spending that much money on exploring the red planet.  Then we came together, listed the reasons it is or is not worth it, and decided as a class that, well, we just weren’t sure!

Then it was off to the computer lab to create our digitally produced brochures that we worked on last week.

After lunch, we needed to find out about more about the different versions of the Mars rover that the United States has sent to Mars:  Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, and the to be launched, Mars2020 rover.  This time, though, it was up to the students to teach.  Each group or pair got the name of a rover, a list of websites, and an iPad.  Their job was to research each rover, create a poster with a drawing and information, and then present it to the class.

Our final task of the day was to take what we learned about the rovers and complete an engineering challenge ~ to make an edible, moving rover!  First, we planned.

Then we created…

And after a little bit of nibbling and a little bit of trial and error, we were finished!

Fifth grade didn’t have EXCEL this past week, but they will do their rover exploration next week!  Next in EXCEL, we’ll learn all about electrical circuits in preparation for making our real, working Mars rovers!

Thank you for sharing your precious children with me for one day per week.  They are truly blessings!

If you would like to donate to our EXCEL class, we are always in need of the following supplies:  Clorox Wipes (we are messy!), tissues, paper cups, and paper plates.

Have a great week and stay safe!


Dr. Stone

Thinking About Mars

Wow!  What a week in EXCEL!  We have had our growing pains, as we get used to having 10-11 students per class – a big change from the 4-7 of last year.  While it has been wonderful learning with our new friends, we all have been through an adjustment period as we learn each other’s personalities and learning styles.  We also had Grandparent’s Day practice thrown in there for some extra confusion, but we still learned a lot and had lots of fun!

We started each class with a warm up activity.  One class had a building challenge while the others had mysteries to solve.


I tried teaching them how to solve a cryptogram, but before I could finish, they had cracked the secret code.  Each letter in the scrambled message stood for the letter preceding it in the alphabet.  What smarties…I hadn’t even thought of that!

After our brains were warmed up and ready to go,  I posed a question:  Would you like to go to Mars?  Each student wrote their name on a sticky note and placed it on the “yes” or “no” side.  Throughout all of our other activities, I asked them if their answer had changed.  While some were absolutely resolute in wanting to stay on Earth, others were a little more curious and thought that the contributions that they would make for science would far outweigh never being able to come home again!  Below is the final count.  As you can see, most wanted to stay put, a few wanted to take a giant leap into space, and a few were on the fence.


We played a round of Mars Jeopardy on the Smartboard–one of their favorite games–to review and apply all we had learned about Mars.  It was a close game in all grade levels ~ we have really learned a lot!


We also worked on finishing our alien critters and filling out some information about their adaptations.


After lunch, all grades learned about how scientists use soil samples to find out about the Earth, and even Mars!  First we looked at actual soil samples from different places around the school.





Then, in third, fourth, and fifth grades, we talked about how scientists took core samples so that they could study the layers of the planet they were studying.  We discussed and hypothesized about how different layers are made on both planets, and then we took some core samples of our own…from candy bars!  The straw was our drill, and after we had taken and examined our core sample, we cut our candy bars in half to see how the layers in the sample matched up with the actual samples of our “soil.”


Third, fourth, and fifth graders ended their day making brochures for a fictional trip to Mars.  Even if they felt that people should go and live on Mars (and fifth graders felt very strongly that they shouldn’t!), they had to make their brochure to try to persuade people to come.  We read an article written by one of the 100 people that have been chosen for Mars One’s 2025 colonization to get an opposing point of view, to see what made people want to leave our Earth behind and spend the rest of their days on Mars.

We’ll use Microsoft Publisher next week to finalize our brochures and present them to a panel of teachers to see how persuasive they were!

First and second graders completed a different project as their final activity.  After watching a neat video about the launching and voyage of the Mars Rover, we looked more carefully at the rocket, the Saturn V.  Then we made our own rockets out of materials that I provided.  Each child had the same task and the same materials, but as you can see, each rocket was unique! (And Yummy!)

Next week, we’ll use our research skills (and if we’re new, or in 1st or 2nd grade) we’ll learn some research skills, as we learn more about the Mars Rover program.  We’ll make edible Mars Rovers in a STEM challenge to get ready for our big project the following week:  Working Mars Rover models!!!

Have a great long weekend!

Dr. Stone