Comparing Wyoming and Mars

Activity: Comparing Wyoming and Mars (approximately 80 minutes) 

Learning Objectives

Main objective and question: Natural features can be identified by satellite photos on Earth and on Mars. What natural features/resources are important to people living in Wyoming and which of these would also be important on Mars?

  • Students will analyze the physical features of Wyoming to see how they impact movement, human interaction, and livelihood in the region
  • Students will see how physical features in their local area (such as rivers needed for irrigation) have affected their local area
  • Students will see how physical features in their region in Wyoming relates to other locations around the world used as testing sites for Mars exploration
  • Students will compare physical features of Wyoming and Mars and predict how the physical environment of Mars could influence human develpment there


    Wyoming Social Studies Standards (2018 draft) SS8.5.1 Use and create models of the Earth to analyze the interactions of physical and human systems to demostrate global interconnectedness. 

    Wyoming Social Studies Standards (2018 draft) SS8.5.2 Analyze and evaluate how physical features and changes influenced historical events (e.g. route of Union Pacific Railraod, location of Wind River Indian Reservation, state and national parks) and participate in collaborative problem solving and decision making in the selection of professional and personal choices. 

    Wyoming Social Studies Standards (2018 draft) SS8.6.1 Use and evaluate multiple sources of information in diverse formats and media in order to address a question or solve a problem. 



    This lesson plan is based on the 5E instructional model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, and Evaluate). It is also based on a simplified version of National Geographic’s Geo-Inquiry Process to help students begin to connect complex components, see patterns, and make connections that change their communities. This is a five step process which has been simplified in this lesson plan for demonstration but instructors are encouraged to expand these five areas in subsequent classes/assessments (e.g. have students evaluate data sources, ask experts, or act by sharing their story in a poster or presentation.)

    Ask a question about their community and its environment (where is it? Why is there? Why care?) 
    Collect background information and expert opinion about the question, and evaluate resources
    Visualize the information: create maps and/or graphs and explore patterns/make connections
    Create a story to share what they learned and to highlight need for change or awareness
    Act (create an action plan) for sharing their story and raising awareness  (not implemented in this lesson plan).


      • Computer and projector for Presenter
      • Laptops for students (students can work individually or in pairs)
      • Internet Connection
      • printed list of latitude/longitude coordinates for students to enter into map  (example for Laramie) (example for Casper) either can be modified for your town; obtain latitude longitude coordinates from Google Maps
      • printed list of coordinates for instructor with descriptions (example for Laramie, example for Casper


      Before class begins, click on this link to open the instructor's story map, which is like an online Powerpoint presentation but with interactive maps as well as photographs and images.

      Engage (5-10 minutes)

      • Ask how many students have used interactive maps before on a computer, tablet or smartphone, like Google Maps or Google Earth. Today we will be using interactive maps to explore Mars and Wyoming.
      • Direct students to go to and click on Social Studies Activities tab, then locate and click on the Mars and Wyoming guided activity. The instructor also demonstrates this on the projector. The student version of the story map only has 5 pages; the instructor’s version of the story map has 13 pages with more photos and question prompts.
      • Go to the next page of the instructor’s version of the story map (1. Compare Mars versus Earth craters). Have the students do the same on their version.
      • Show them how to  use the tools on the upper left of the map to zoom in and out. Also show them how to view the legend (right side of map) to tell which craters are on Mars (small black dots) and which are on Earth (orange).
      • Mention that Mars is much smaller than Earth but since both planets are the same shape we can see where craters on Mars would be on Earth, they are just more spread out than they are on Mars. Also be aware that these are impact crater (craters created from impact of an asteroid, not craters created from volcanic eruptions like the one in Yellowstone).
      • Ask, why are there so many more craters on Mars?  [Students may suggest things like there are more asteroids hitting its surface; it has less atmosphere and no ocean to protect it; Earth has active volcanos that can bury craters with lava or ash; Earth has moving water like rivers that cause erosion and sediment build up, which wears down or covers up craters over time]

      Explore (10 minutes)

      • Ask students to zoom into Wyoming to find craters [there is only one crater, 7 km in diameter, and it is buried in layers of sedimentary rock; it can't be seen from the surface] 
      • Ask the students what places on Earth are similar to Mars that would be good testing sites for equipment and astronauts before going to Mars?  Would it be smart to test equipment on a crater on Earth before having it explore craters on Mars?
      • Have students check off the Mars craters and check on the layer "Mars testing sites" to see these locations around the globe
      • Ask students if they can find the testing site on Earth that is located in a crater and when they find it to click on it to see the name [Devon Island Canada in the Haughton crater, near Greenland]
      • Go to next page of the instructor’s story map (1a. Mars or Earth?) and ask students which photo was taken at Gale Crater on Mars and which one was taken in the crater Devon Island? Ask students to identify clues in the photo that helped them figure out which one was Mars. [students may notice small shapes of buildings on bottom photo]
      • Repeat for page 1b [top photo is Mars even though some shading may look like water in the distance]
      • Repeat for page 1c [students may notice snow on the volcano on the bottom; Mars only has snow at its poles]


      • The last pair of photos are satellite images of a volcano on Earth and a volcano on Mars.* Explain how much of what we know about Mars is from photos like these taken by satellites because the rovers on Mars have only explored less than 50 miles of the surface so far.  Satellite photos are used to identify volcanos, canyons, and search for signs of water such as ancient lakes and rivers. In the next part of the class, students will see how well they can identify features from aerial photos of their town.   *Technically there is a difference between aerial photos taken from an airplane and images taken by a satellite in space, but for simplicity only one term is used.

      Extend (20 minutes)                       Geo-inquiry process: Collect information

      • Go to the next page (2. Identify features in your own town from satellite images). Have the students go to this page on their version of the story map too.
      • Split the students into teams (2 to 4 students, depending on size of class). Each team should have one or two laptops. Assign them a color (their color will be used for the symbols they add to the map). Give each team two to four latitude/longitude coordinates of recognizable locations in or near their town. Lists can be created by the instructor  ahead of time from an Excel file (coming soon). Optionally, the instructor may want to assign a specific location to each student if they all have laptops. 
      • Demonstrate how to enter the locations by typing in a latitude and longitude coordinate into the search bar at the top of the map and then hit enter to go to that location (explain that these are like very accurate addresses for every location on earth).
      • Show how to zoom out to see context and to identify the locations on the photo by their shapes or by other recognizable features nearby. Remind students not to change or delete locations entered by other students.

      Elaborate (20 minutes)                 Geo-inquiry process: Visualize 

      • After each team has finished entering locations the instructor shows the shared map (still on page 2) and zooms out so the teams can see the locations they "collected" in their team color in comparison to other locations entered by other teams. 
      • Zoom into several of these (or all, if time permits) so all the students can see what the locations look like on an aerial photograph, and see how well the teams did at identifying their features. 
      • Ask a couple students or teams what visual clues they used to identify their features
      • Ask what features about their town can be used to support livelihoods? Why would people have moved to this area and stayed here, how did they support themselves? [possible answers might be railroad, river for transportation or irrigation; in some parts of Wyoming answers might include timber for building or minerals for mining].  Geo-inquiry process: Ask questions about your community… 
      • Go to next page (3.  What features are important to people moving to an area to live?) and show examples of how natural resources are used on satellite images. Ask the students if they can identify which photos correspond to hayfields irrigated from a river (important to livestock), a surface coal mine, natural gas wells, and logged areas in a forest. [Top left, hayfields; top right, coal mine; bottom left, natural gas well; bottom right, logged areas]  
      • Connection to Mars: colonies on Mars would be chosen based on natural resources that would best support livelihoods. 
      • Go to the next page (4. Identify important Wyoming features from satellite images). This page shows a map of unique features in Wyoming with a legend. Vedauwoo Rocks is highlighted to show how the symbol color on the map matches the symbol on the legend. Also shown is what this unusual rock formation looks like from a satellite view and a regular photograph taken from the ground.  Tell the students they will be challenged to find two features on the Wyoming map and zoom into see them in detail.
      • To demonstrate this, click the link to open the map in a separate tab or window and have the students do the same. Tell the students to zoom into Yellowstone. The students should stay on the map page while you go back to the story map and go to the next page (5a. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone).  Ask the students what color symbol “canyon” is on the legend, then zoom into Yellowstone to find the corresponding color. Click it to open a popup window to confirm that it is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Then zoom in closer so they can see what the canyon looks like on a satellite photo.
      • Go back to the story map and go to the next page (5b. Giant canyons on Mars) to show how satellite images of Mars have identified a canyon almost 4 times as deep as the Grand Canyon.
      • Go to the next page (5c. Grand Prismatic Spring) and have students find this on the map and zoom into it to see the spring (there are lots of geothermal features in Yellowstone, so this is like a treasure hunt, they will have to click on several features to find it, but it is worth the search! It looks amazing!)
      • Go to the next page (5e. Ancient lakes on Mars). There no confirmed geothermal features on Mars, but satellite images show features that are similar to dried up geothermal springs and lakes on Earth, and these features might preserve evidence of martian life.
      • Go to the next page (5e. Killpecker dunes). Ask which photo is of sand dunes from Mars, and which one is from Wyoming? Then have them “race” to see who can find the dunes first on the map. Students can’t just find the name, they have to zoom in close enough to see the dunes.


      Evaluate (10 minutes)           Geo-inquiry process: Create story 

      • Go to the next page (6. What resources are important in Wyoming and might be for Mars, too). This map shows the boundary of Wyoming. Click the Layers button (looks like stacked layers) and check on Tourism – National Parks, explaining how tourism is important to Wyoming as you point out Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks which millions of people visit every year.
      • Check off  Tourism and check on U.S. Coal mines and zoom out to the whole US. Click the arrow to the right of the layer to show the legend and explain how the size of the symbol represents the amount of coal produced. Wyoming produces more coal than any other state.
      • Check on other layers (Total area of croplands, population density) to show how Wyoming compares to other states. Wyoming is not a big producer of crops (the ecoregions layer shows that Wyoming is mostly desert) and Wyoming has very low population density but there is a lot of mining in Wyoming (top producer of coal and uranium)
      • Ask students to “think, pair, share” with a partner: look at this list of layers and come up with some ideas of which of these features might also be important (or not be important) to people traveling to Mars someday.
        • Possible answers: tourism might be a big money maker on Mars, some people will be willing to pay a lot of money to say they visited another planet.
        • Coal mining and natural gas drilling will not important on Mars because these are fossil fuels and so far we haven’t discovered fossils on Mars
        • Other mining (for uranium maybe) might be important minerals needed to make things or to create heat (uranium)
        • Like Wyoming (dry and cold), Mars will probably not have great population density because it’s so dry and cold