Year 5, MARS & STEM in Term 1

What an awesome term of STEM we had in year 5! The main objectives were to learn about the planet Mars, space missions to Mars, the role of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the people that work there, discover if humans could live on Mars and what life would be like there.

So, lots of talk about lots of my favourite things: space, Mars, NASA/JPL, Adam Steltzner, The Martian, amazing technology, science and engineering, really inspiring stuff.


As well as the main learning objectives I had planned at the start of the course, some extra opportunities arose to fit into the busy schedule to enhance the course further. March 14 was Pi Day and I planned a special lesson with help from a great resource I found from the NASA website called Planet Pi. I adapted the lesson slightly for year 5 and they coped with some new and tough maths admirably. This lesson highlighted how NASA scientists use Maths in their jobs to learn about planets and other celestial bodies. I explained the maths and formulae clearly and used some great visuals to help the girls understand the maths and why it was needed. I loved the example of using Pi to explore a planet, this was such a great lesson!


Another great lesson we had this term, and which was a complete and unexpected surprise was the Skype with Andrea Boyd, an engineer with the European Space Agency. Andrea lives in Germany and was good enough to stay up late at night to speak to all of year 5 at 9am Sydney time. Andrea spoke about her education and career in the space industry, which was very interesting and inspiring for our young girls. Our students prepared some great questions to ask Andrea about space, the International Space Station, astronauts and more. Our girls did a great job, were beautifully behaved, very polite and engaged with this brilliant, young, Australian woman. We learnt so much about space and how astronauts live and work on the ISS. This was a really exciting lesson which everyone enjoyed! Big thanks go to Jackie Slaviero, founder of One Giant Leap Australia, for putting me in contact with Andrea and then for sending me an amazing pack of goodies from NASA.


The students seemed to love our STEM lessons this term. Space is such an interesting, exciting and inspiring topic for young and old, and I was so pleased with how they engaged. I love the questions they ask, they are so curious and what to learn everything. As well as learning about Mars we learnt about black holes, the Earth and Moon, the ISS, the speed of light, galaxies and more. We could quite easily study space for the whole year, and I gladly would.

Next term… students continue their STEM journey to Mars when they work in engineering groups to design and build their own Mars rover, based on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), aka Curiosity. Curiosity has been a common theme throughout the term and I talked a lot about it when I talked about JPL engineer and EDL team leader for Curiosity, Adam Steltzner, a really inspiring speaker.


His TED talk ‘How Curiosity changed my life, and I changed Hers’ is one of my favourites.

We also looked at rover facts and a great video called ‘7 minutes of terror’ which details how the rover made it from the top of the Mars atmosphere travelling at 30,000 mph to the surface travelling at a few mph in just 7 minutes. Another must-see video!

Like I said, I could teach this topic all year and not get bored! I used this video for an which included some questions about the EDL of Curiosity. A great resource for incorporating video into classes.

Students produced some wonderful work including ‘Selling Mars: selling land on Mars’ advertisements and a ‘NASA profile’ of an inspiring NASA scientist they found from the website We Are The Martians.

So next term… engineering groups, specific roles for each girl in the group, designing and making a Mars rover, making wheels and incorporating LittleBits electronics to make the rover move, engineering guide with project milestones, evaluations, presentations, creativity, teamwork and fun!

Let’s hope ours will look better than this one!

costumeelizabethb-561x600 visit to Ravo

On Wednesday 30 March software engineer Brendan Reville paid a visit to Ravo to talk with students about his life, career, and the Hour of Code. I met Brendan a few weeks earlier at the Future Schools Expo at the Australian Technology Park in Sydney and I was impressed with his talk and the fresh, positive message he made that day. I have been a fan of the Hour of Code and for a few years so he didn’t have to sell me at all as I was already using the great resources he was responsible for. I was very impressed when he told us he was the mastermind behind the Star Wars Hour of Code last year, one of my favourite coding tutorials. The tutorials are brilliant, clear instructions are provided, helpful videos explain important concepts, fun scenarios to learn and a whole heap of extra resources to help teachers deliver the content to their classes. The Star Wars Hour of Code introduction video below is a must-see!

At the conference Brendan also mentioned the full curriculums provide for free on their website. I had looked at these before and dipped in and out of them to use some coding resources and some of the great unplugged resources, but he inspired me to take the courses more seriously and I am now teaching course 2 to my year 3 classes. I love the mixture of unplugged activities and online activities to teach computational thinking, coding and other technology constructs. The first few lessons have gone really well and students have been thoroughly engaged in all the different types of activities.

Brendan’s talk at Ravo was fantastic. He has had an interesting life and career so far and he inspired the students to take software design and coding as a serious career path. He talked about his schooling and university days in Sydney and at Macquarie University and how he started making computer games and first steps in coding. As a big Xbox fan he wanted to work for Microsoft so he moved to the USA to land his dream job. He talked about the great projects he was involved with at Microsoft, including developing user interface’s and the Xbox Music Mixer, as seen below.


Wanting a new challenge Brendan moved to to be involved with coding and education and helping to deliver the world’s largest educational event – the Hour of Code!

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Reflection on completing an hour of code.

Brendan also spoke about the wide variety of skills needed to be successful when working for a tech company. It isn’t just coding skills that get you noticed, it is also skills including teamwork, creativity, communication, designing and more. He described his experiences of working for tech companies vividly and the year 9 and 10 students in attendance were enthralled.

Brendan delivered a positive and inspiring message to our girls that they can succeed in the tech industry and land their dream job for a great start-up or tech giant. Through the resources young people are learning some great skills that will benefit them not just in their schooling but also in their future careers that are sure to be dominated by STEM.

Thank you Brendan and! (And thanks for the cool stickers :))

code_logo_rgb also has lots of other great videos to learn about computer science and technology such as the internet and cybersecurity.

Pluto, polygons and Sphero

Today’s Sphero lesson with my two year 4 classes focused on coding Sphero to trace polygons on the floor. Students were not very familiar with polygons and some of the other terms in the lesson, however, during the starter it was evident that some girls had some knowledge, enough for the lesson at least. Students were just about to learn about polygons in their maths class so this was a nice introduction.

So, a polygon is a 2D shape with at least three straight sides: triangle (3 sides), quadrilateral (4 sides), pentagon (5 sides), hexagon (6 sides), heptagon (7 sides), octagon (8 sides), nonagon (9 sides) and decagon (10 sides).


To help set up the lesson and relate the learning to a real-life, STEM scenario I used a great article from NASA called ‘The Polygons of Pluto’. This blog article by Katie Knight, an undergraduate student at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Katie works with the New Horizons team to help map some of the unusual terrain on Pluto, seeking patterns and estimating sizes and shapes of some of its unusual features.

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This fascinating article talked about the work Katie does to study the geological features and ‘chaotic terrain’ of the surface of dwarf planet Pluto. This also raised an interesting discussion of what is a dwarf planet and why was Pluto downgraded from a planet to a dwarf. This BBC article provides a nice explanation of why Pluto was downgraded. The image below also states the requirements to be classified as a planet.

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I love lessons where I can relate the learning to space, and this was a great example. We talked about how NASA scientists use knowledge of polygons to study the surface of planets to try to discover what the terrain is made from, how big it is and how it formed. They also look for patterns that they try to match with other planets that could help unlock more clues about our solar system. Young girls are curious about space and mentioning NASA always seems to engage young minds. One day some of these girls could be working for a space agency such as NASA and perhaps they could even be coding robots on far away celestial bodies like planets and dwarf planets. This lesson could have gone in so many directions and we could have explored much more about space and NASA, but time limitations meant we could not venture too far into deep space. Perhaps a flipped activity here where students look for polygons on other celestial bodies, how many can they find, what shapes can they discover?! Example below is Eros, an asteroid famous for its close approaches to Earth.


After describing how Sphero moves using a 360 degrees heading system it was time to start coding some polygons. We started with a square and moved onto a triangle. Some groups absolutely flew with the challenges and were able to complete them quickly. When they completed the challenges they moved onto extension tasks, including coding Sphero to display different colour lights on each side of the shape and coding the shapes in reverse.

Observing the groups at work is interesting. Some girls just want to play for the first few minutes while others start the challenge immediately and can’t wait to finish and show the teacher. However, all girls are engaged, all girls are participating, all girls are collaborating and communicating, all girls are problem-solving and using technology constructively. Using Sphero and an iPad means girls are not staring at screens the whole time, they are actively using technology by using a small robotics device that they love to make move and follow. They are active and mobile coders.

In the lesson girls learnt about polygons, Sphero heading, how to find the angle needed to draw any polygon, how NASA scientists use amazing technology to explore distant bodies and search for certain shapes and the information they can get from them. For me this lesson definitely ticked the STEM box many times over.

Amazing Skype lesson with Andrea Boyd – ESA

On Wednesday 16 March I arranged for the whole of year 5 to Skype with European Space Agency engineer Andrea Boyd. The Skype meeting was to compliment the unit I was leading about space, Mars and the Curiosity rover. Thanks to Jackie Slaviero I made contact with Andrea and we arranged the chat in just a couple of days.

The girls were prepped pretty much the day before the chat and I led a lesson about Andrea, ESA, ISS and engineering. The girls were then asked to write down their questions for Andrea. I read all of the questions and highlighted the best ones, 5 from each class. These girls were then chosen to ask their question to Andrea during the chat. The stage was set.

The Skype did not go 100% smoothly. The morning of the Skype was wet, very wet, so classes got a bit wet walking from junior school to the middle school learning studio. A small inconvenience but not ideal.

ICT came to help set up the Skype and everything seemed to be working well. We had video and audio and the test call connected no problem.

The girls arrived and were seated, I milled around nervously waiting to get started. At 9am I made the call to Andrea and the call did not connect, it didn’t event ring. I tried again, still not luck. I had no idea why. Andrea had messaged us on Skype to say that she was ready, she was online, we were online, yet no connection, what was happening? I called ICT and left a message for help. In the meantime I chatted to the girls and we asked a couple of space questions to spark some debate. Then ICT showed up, fixed the problem and we were away, at last!

The call was amazing! Andrea was lovely and really engaged the girls from the first moments. She spoke about herself and what she does at ESA and EAC in Germany. The girls behaved perfectly and asked their questions with poise and confidence. There manners were excellent and and they thanked Andrea for her time with great enthusiasm.

Andrea answered all of the questions and we learnt so much. Some of the things I learnt:

  • Spacewalks are very dangerous
  • Space suits can fill with water due to a leak inside
  • Astronauts’ faces get squashed in space due to the pressure
  • Eyes also get squashed
  • The ISS doesn’t need fuel when it is in Earth’s orbit
  • The gravity of Earth is enough to keep the ISS moving at 27,000 km/hr
  • The ISS is constantly falling towards Earth, every so often small bursts are made to push the ISS back up to around 400 km above Earth’s surface
  • Astronauts sleep floating around in the ISS
  • Astronauts either spit out their toothpaste and saliva into a towel or tissue after brushing their teeth or they swallow it
  • Astronaut training involves lots of swimming
  • Learning Russian and Chinese will help you be selected to become an astronaut
  • Teamwork and communication skills are also very important for future astronauts
  • Andrea would like to go to space for a weekend and then come home

We all learnt so much!

I loved this Skype lesson and will definitely be looking to do one again soon.