Ground Control to Major Dog: A STEM Activity

Have you ever noticed how art tends to reflect science and technology? As humans progress forwards as a species, we find the culture of the times shifting alongside us. This was never made more obvious than when the United States and the USSR were fighting over which superpower could send humans into space first in the famous “Space Race” era of the 1950s and 1960s.   During this period, humanity was obsessed with the idea of transcending our earthly bounds and exploring the stars. This can be seen in the space-themed styles of a lot of popular culture from that era, like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, and the cartoon series “The Jetsons”.

Of course, this idea is still with us culturally. From Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars to the extreme popularity of the science fiction genre, it’s pretty easy to see that we humans still have some wanderlust when it comes to leaving our planet of origin and pioneering brave new worlds out in space.

Of course, first we’ve got to figure out how to break past this pesky gravitational field.


I was sitting in class the other day when a good friend of mine showed me this video.

Immediately, I knew that I absolutely had to do this in my own classroom. To my excitement, Google searches revealed that weather balloons, GoPros, and stuffed dogs really aren’t that expensive. However, I felt the need to take it further. What if we strapped a rocket to that dog and tried to launch it into the sun? The students would probably think idea is pretty cool, and since the dog and camera would be pretty light, it wouldn’t take a ridiculously expensive rocket to get some good motion. All that remained for me was to find a way to make this into a lesson. This is what I came up with:

Engage: Escape Velocity and calculating G

Imagine that you’ve just completed a unit in your high school science class. You took a test on Friday, you build some janky machine, and your teacher told you to get ready for some fun on Monday. You come into class to find him/her carrying a huge cardboard box full of nonsense and shouting about NASA. At this point in the year, you’ve definitely learned about  conservative and non-conservative forces, drag and air resistance, and it would appear that your teacher wants you to apply all of these things together to accomplish an important task: Sending Fluffy the dog on a bold and daring mission into space.

But, of course, you must first learn to crawl before you can learn to walk, so the class will have to learn some rocket science before our canine companion begins her space odyssey. This brings us to our first problem: escaping orbit. At this point, the students are familiar that the gravitational acceleration on earth is 9.8 m/2^2, so the teacher can use this prior experience to their knowledge when explaining Newton’s law of universal gravitation. The teacher begins by having his/her students replicate the experiment conducted in the mid 1800s to determine the value of G, the gravitational constant using Newton’s law.

Explore: The application of G

For the second part of this learning cycle, students will tasked with a “class challenge” activity. Each student in the class will be given cards with different information regarding a fictional solar system on them, and they’ll be forced to use their previous knowledge as well as their newfound equation for gravitation to determine orbits, paths of motion, and planetary compositions. If humanity is attempting to colonize a certain planet in this solar system, the students will have to work together sharing their information and then determining whether or not the gravity on the new planet’s surface could support human activity.

Explain: The Math

So, now we’ve talked about all of the concepts that we’re going to need to understand for our mission. Now it’s time to prepare. The teacher asks the class to vote on a destination for fluffy’s mission. Does the class want to try to send her to mars? Do they want to see if they can launch her into the sun? Why not just strap the most powerful rocket they can find onto that thing and see where it ends up? The teacher figures out what the students want to do and they get to work.

The next phase of this lesson is a “Group Investigation” activity. The students break off into groups. Each group is tasked with finding out data for a different aspect of the mission. One group draws out a model of where the target destination is going to be at the time of the mission and what its orbital speed is. Another group does research regarding gravitational fields of the sun and the inner planets in an attempt to figure out what sort of forces will be acting on the spacecraft during each phase of its motion. Another group calculates the escape velocity of the Earth in an attempt to figure out how powerful the weather balloon and rockets need to be to actually leave orbit. Afterwards, all groups give a presentation on their findings and the teacher checks everyone’s math to make sure that the mission is a go.

Elaborate: The Design

Now everyone’s done the math and it’s time to launch this puppy into space! (Pun intended). The class gathers together and starts brainstorming ideas for the actual spacecraft’s design. The weather balloon can get Fluffy up pretty far into orbit, but several questions have to be asked in order for this mission to succeed.

  • How do we ensure that the rocket is facing the right way when it gets up into orbit?
  • How do we get the rocket to remotely launch once in position?
  • How do we make sure the spacecraft doesn’t get obliterated by the air resistance and drag on its way up?
  • How do we make sure that the spacecraft is protected and doesn’t fall away from the balloon prematurely?

How do we ensure the camera maintains battery life and the rocket maintains fuel?

The students ask and answer these questions, and the class works together to come up with a design. The class splits up once more to design different aspects of the spacecraft and parcel that are being launched. One team figures out which rocket to use, another builds the parcel, another builds the craft itself, ETC. Once all the preparations are complete, a final once-over check of the math is conducted just to be sure that everything works with the final design’s mass and shape.

Evaluation: The mission

Finally the time has come for the final mission to take place. Fluffy is strapped in and ready to go, and all of the students have done their part in getting her ready. The balloon is launched and the students gather round to watch the livestream of Fluffy’s mission. For a longer mission, the students check the stream every day to see how she’s doing. After the mission’s completion, the students get together once more and discuss what made the mission succeed or fail, what could have been different about the rocket’s design, and what could be changed if given unlimited time and resources. Afterwards, each student could be given a one-question evaluation where they had to apply the equations used in the mission in a slightly different context. For instance, a similar mission around a star with a higher mass, or to a different destination planet.


  1. Aesa-
    WOW! Your blogs never fail to surprise me with how creative and original your thoughts are. A great and intriguing introduction to grab the reader’s interest without diving straight in to the specifics. Your lesson plan did an amazing job of keeping a balance between all of the subjects included in STEAM and you incorporated art in such a creative and unique way. Bravo!

  2. Aeas,

    I love your blog this week! I thought it was very creative and would be great fun in the classroom. I thought you did a good job of creating a lesson using the 5E’s. I think it is awesome that you want to actually send Fluffy into space. I think the questions you posed for you class was good to get them to think about the complications what can occur. I think your pictures and videos do a good job of helping get your point across. I would have liked you to talk about STEAM and why is should be used in the classroom. I do think your lesson had elements of STEAM thought. Great job!!


    • Katin,

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked my blog! In hindsight, I probably should go back and add a bit more on the importance of STEM in the classroom. I might’ve gotten a little too focused on my lesson plan. I’m glad you pointed that out!



  3. Aesa,
    I love this video so much! The fact that you viewed it and took it a step further really stands out to me, and I think it speaks volumes about who you are as a scientist and teacher!
    One suggestion I have would to in the beginning of the school year say, “If all goes according to plan, you guys are sending this gal into space by the end of march.” or something of the sorts. I think that this statement would really intrigue them, and possibly make them think, “What am I learning that will help me get that dog into space?” This could help engage students through the unit/semester/ quarter. I also like how you just surprise them one day, too, though! There are multiple ways you could present this project to them!

    • Meghan,

      I love your idea of using the project as a bargaining chip to get students more excited! I can totally use that as a way to hype up the material all year, and I can certainly rewrite aspects of this project to be the ultimate culmination of equations and concepts that my students have learned by the end of the year. Thanks for the input!


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