Out of this World: Inquiry-Based Teaching

Connect classroom learning with real-life experiences by using photographs and data taken by the Mars Pathfinder.

By Christen Amico


With a price tag of $265 billion and three years in the making, the Mars Pathfinder certainly left its mark on the science community. Most notably, the Pathfinder was able to return over 2.3 billion bits of information and more than 16,500 photographs of Mars. Let young scientists discover the world of Mars firsthand, by encouraging them to view and analyze all this information in a way that is most interesting to them.

A major component to constructivist learning is creating meaning through inquiry. Children should be able to question the world around them and rely on teachers to guide them to a place where the answers can be discovered. Each one of the 16,500 photographs returned from the Mars Pathfinder can open a door to a new adventure for young scientists. As teachers, sometimes we need to expose students to the right materials and pose the right questions in order to set the stage for meaningful and relevant learning.

Prioritize with Primary Sources

A primary source is any piece of actual information; including photographs, actual scientific data, rock and mineral samples, and first-hand interviews with astronauts. A secondary source is someone else’s synopsis of the information, such as newspaper articles, textbooks, and reports. Although both types of information are critical to a successful science unit, the use of primary sources can help lessons become more effective and enable higher-level thinking. With access to the internet, teachers are now able to download the actual photographs and data taken from the Pathfinder mission. Museums, such as the California Science Center, display many primary sources. For instance, on exhibit, they have actual gear worn by astronauts and remnants of satellites and capsules sent into space. The Space Shuttle Endeavor is even expected to land at the Science Center in Fall 2012! Museums can be a great place to find many exciting primary sources that can’t be downloaded from the internet.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Teachers and parents know that young children love to ask “why?”, and although this one-syllable word can become annoying, it proves that educational experiences based on children’s own questions will lead to the greatest possible learning. When kids are interested in finding out more about a particular subject they are far more likely to actually remember what they learned as opposed to being lectured on something they are not really interested in.

Capitalize on this phenomenon by stepping aside and letting the questions guide the instruction. Post some of the photographs from Mars around the room and let the class create a web of questions around each one. The teacher’s role then becomes that of facilitator; guiding children towards the answers and allowing them to create their own meaning of the information they have learned. The newly acquired information can then be shared via class presentations, projects, and reports.

Travel Across All Subjects

One great asset of primary sources is that they can be used for all types of learning. This is because they can be connected to different disciplines. Here are some great lesson ideas that integrate the information from the Pathfinder with other subject areas:

  • Randomly select a photograph and write a short fiction/fantasy story based on what is seen.
  • Build digital literacy by combining photographs and words to create an educational music montage.
  • Use a photograph of Mars as a springboard for a mini-lesson on descriptive language. Have the class write a paragraph describing a particular photograph and see if the other students can guess which photograph is being described based on the adjectives used.
  • Compare the temperature on Mars to the temperature in your town from the same day (using an almanac) and graph the difference.
  • Based on photographs of the actual Pathfinder, have your class create their own space exploration device. Don’t forget to give it name!
  • Teach symmetry: cut a photograph in half and use a variety of art materials to recreate the other half.

Activities For Further Learning:

Why Do Things Fall?

Fourth and Fifth graders will find this Pathfinder reading passage concise and informative. The questions are a great mix of science, social studies, and even math concepts.

Mars- The Red Planet

Here is a great introduction to the planet Mars. This article includes great photographs, charts, and engaging comprehension questions.

Graphing Data taken from the Pathfinder Mission

An advanced graphing lesson where actual data is taken from the Pathfinder Mission and used in a 11th or 12th grade math lesson. The plan includes links to the actual data as well as clear examples of possible charts and graphs.

Is There Life on Mars?

This is a great science vocabulary lesson plan and worksheet geared towards 3rd graders. Included is a short passage with bold words, cloze paragraph, and graphic organizer that can be used to help learners better understand complex scientific terms.