Lesson Robots on Ice

Quick Look

Grade Level: 6 (6-8)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Lesson Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Earth and Space, Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

Two photographs: In a snowy landscape, a long, cylindrical yellow device (the Icefin robot) hangs from a triangular metal frame above a hole in the ice. An underwater photo shows the long yellow device (the robot) moving horizontally under the ice above it.
The Icefin robot is tested in the field in Antarctica. It is dropped through the ice where it swims in the frigid water to explore unknown terrain.
Copyright © 2013 Georgia Tech


Students learn about humankind’s search for life in outer space and how it connects to robotics and engineering. NASA is interested in sending exploratory missions to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, which requires a lot of preparatory research and development on Earth before it can happen. One robot currently being engineered as a proof of concept for a possible trip to explore Europa is the Icefin, which is an innovative robot that can explore under ice and in water, which are the believed conditions on Europa. This lesson provides students with intriguing information about far off (distance and time!) space missions and field robotics, and also sets up two associated robotics and arts integration activities to follow. The lesson can be used individually to provide new information to students, or as a precursor to the associated activities. A PowerPoint® presentation and worksheet are provided.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Teams of engineers are critically involved in the development of robots for space missions. While some missions may be decades away from launching, the research and development must start somewhere! In 2013, researchers engineered a robot called Icefin that serves as a proof of concept for a future mission to Europa. Icefin has an innovative design that was carefully constructed based on mission requirements and challenges, and has been field tested in Antarctica.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Provide facts about Europa and compare it to Earth.
  • Give an example of how engineers test robots in the field.
  • Discuss the challenges of sending a robot to Europa.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This lesson focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.

Alignment agreement:

The more precisely a design task's criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that is likely to limit possible solutions.

Alignment agreement:

All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment.

Alignment agreement:

The uses of technologies and any limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.

Alignment agreement:

  • Explain how various relationships can exist between technology and engineering and other content areas. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Apply a product, system, or process developed for one setting to another setting. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Develop innovative products and systems that solve problems and extend capabilities based on individual or collective needs and wants. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Students will investigate the features of the process of scientific inquiry. (Grade 6) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Compare and contrast the planets in terms of
    • Size relative to the earth
    • Surface and atmospheric features
    • Relative distance from the sun
    • Ability to support life
    (Grade 6) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/lessons/view/gat_robots_lesson01] to print or download.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should know that Antarctica is a large continent covered by vast ice sheets and glaciers.

Students should know that NASA has sent many missions to explore outer space. The type of machine needed for a mission depends on the mission goals and whether the technology exists for the desired activity. Landers land on objects, orbiters orbit objects, and flybys fly by objects.

Students should know that robots are often used in situations in which humans cannot access the intended target for reasons of safety, comfort and/or practicality/logistics. Robots go where people cannot!


(Be ready to show the class the 23-slide Robots on Ice Presentation, a PowerPoint® file, to provide visuals to support the suggested script below, including Internet access to show a few online videos. The purpose of this lesson is to share background information with students regarding Europa and the Icefin robot; it is largely teacher-led in an effort to efficiently move on to the hands-on associated activities (Refer to the associated activities Robots on Ice Engineering Challenge and Continuous Line Robots and Art) . Before beginning the slide presentation, hand out the Robots on Ice Worksheets and ask students to answer the two questions in Part A.)

(Slide 1) Do you ever wonder if life exists in outer space? Do you dream of aliens or living on other planets? While these questions are often the premise of intriguing science fiction stories, thanks to awesome achievements in science and engineering, these ideas are coming closer to reality each day.

(Slide 2) Since water is an essential ingredient for life as we know it, finding water in space could indicate that life is present. In fact, when planning space exploration missions, NASA’s rule of thumb is typically “follow the water.” Within the last few decades, scientists have found many strong indications of water in the solar system. For example, Mars rovers and landers have found ridges on Mars that suggest the existence of past water flows and current ice caps on the poles. It is also believed that one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, has water, which is suggested by images from the orbiter Cassini of plumes (of water?) escaping from the South Pole. Based on data from the flyby missions of Galileo and Voyager, strong evidence also exists that one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, is covered in any icy-shell that has a vast liquid water ocean underneath it.

(Continue showing the class the slide presentation, using the information presented in the Lesson Background section.)

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Introducing Europa

(Slide 3) These exciting water discoveries have led scientists and engineers to engage in further research activities to explore these areas that could harbor life. Europa is a strong area of interest and researchers are currently planning future missions to Europa. Some scientists believe that life has existed on Europa since almost the start of the solar system! Our current knowledge of Europa is from images taken by Galileo’s brief flyby in the 1990s, so researchers would like to get a closer look using more advanced technology. Currently, NASA is working on a mission to launch in the mid-2020s that would include 45 flybys of Europa (by way of orbiting Jupiter) to get new, high-quality images and sensor data.

Could a liquid water ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa have the ingredients to support life? Watch this short video clip about how NASA’s mission to Europe plans to find out. (Play a 3:10-minute video, “Alien Ocean: NASA’s Mission to Europa.” https://europa.nasa.gov/resources/55/.)

(Continue on slide 3.) Not only will the 45 flybys provide confirmation of water, but they will also provide valuable information about the conditions of the environment on Europa. This data will help scientists prepare for the next steps, which will likely involve sending a lander or robot to the surface. While getting a lander on Europa is decades away, researchers are already engineering robots and ideas for how to make this possible. The flybys will confirm (maybe!) that Europa merits a lander, and perhaps one day a robot will not just land on the surface, but will also drill through the ice and swim in the ocean to explore for organisms.

(Slide 4) Before we go further, let’s find out what researchers already know about Europa by watching two short video clips from NASA.

Europa: Ocean World (4:13 minutes): https://europa.nasa.gov/resources/54/
Europa: Cool Destination for Life? (3:43 minutes): https://europa.nasa.gov/resources/53/
(Slides 5-6) Here are some basic facts about Europa:

  • It was discovered by Galileo in 1610.
  • It is slightly smaller than the Earth’s moon.
  • It is Jupiter's sixth-closest moon and the sixth-largest moon in the solar system.
  • It has an icy shell with a liquid ocean beneath it, a rocky interior, and an iron-nickel core.
  • It is believed that the ocean is salt water and the atmosphere is oxygen.
  • Due to its proximity to the giant planet Jupiter, Europa has very strong tides.
  • It is believed that the tides cause the moon to flex significantly, resulting in heat that causes its ocean to be liquid water instead of frozen water.
  • The flexing causes the icy shell to crack, resulting in large fractures across the surface. The fractures might also be caused by volcanic activity.
  • We call the scars across Europa chaos terrain because they are random in direction and the lines often crisscross each other.
  • Despite all the cracks, it is the smoothest surface of any solid in the solar system. It does not have many craters.

(Slide 7) Let’s take a look at this infographic that compares the Earth and Europa: https://www.space.com/22207-jupiter-moon-europa-water-ocean-infographic.html

Europa is a fascinating place! Now let’s focus on what we want to know about Europa going forward and how scientists and engineers are going to get that information.

(Next, give students a few minutes to reflect on what they just learned so far about Europa and complete Part B of the worksheet.)

Introducing Icefin

(Slides 8-12) Wouldn’t it be amazing to send a robot to explore Europa? Well, that might really happen! In 2013, a team of scientists and engineers began developing a robot for researching unexplored areas of the Earth’s polar waters. As a result, an unmanned, underwater robot called Icefin was created. While Icefin was initially developed for researching the Earth’s polar oceans, it also doubles as an initial proof of concept for future space exploration robots, like one that might go to Europa. Since Europa is believed to have a thick outer shell of ice on top of a deep liquid ocean, Icefin was developed with these conditions in mind, which matches similarly to some of the Earth’s conditions found at the North and South Poles.

Many features of Icefin make it a great concept for exploring Europa. Icefin is a unique robot that can be lowered under thick layers of ice and then swim in very cold, deep water. As Icefin moves in the water, an embedded video camera sends a live feed to the controllers so they can navigate and explore the environment. Icefin is innovative because it is modular, meaning it can be taken apart. Many other ice exploring robots are large, heavy rovers about the size of a small car. They are difficult to transport to testing sites because of the significant weight and size. One big benefit of Icefin is that it can be taken apart during travel and transported in small, manageable pieces. It can be easily reassembled when it is needed for experiments. These features are all important pieces of the puzzle in preparing for a future mission to Europa.

(Slide 13) Icefin is 3 meters long, weighs about 230 pounds, can travel more than 2 meters per second, and is comprised of six modules and a special foam outer casing to help with buoyancy. It also has a fiber optic tether to aid in communication relay and deployment/recovery. As the Icefin swims underwater, researchers watch its progress from the surface and steer the robot with two joysticks. They can see live feeds from its cameras and a visual representation of sonar data in real time. Other sensor data is downloaded for later analysis.

(Slide 14) (Depending on your group’s level, consider modifying this section to ensure that students can digest the content.) Each of Icefin’s six modules serves a special purpose, from navigation thrusters to sensors. From front to back, the segments are: front sensors, directional thruster, wet sensors, dry electronics, an additional directional thruster, and a rear thruster.

  • The front module has a sonar sensor to map the surroundings, a conductivity temperature sensor to measure salinity and water temperature, a special mechanism to temporarily hold a weight to keep the robot vertical during launch, and a camera to take pictures, film the surroundings, and provide a live-feed for navigation.
  • The thruster modules enable Icefin to move in five different ways—in the x direction (surge), the y direction (sway), and the z direction (heave); it can also rotate (yaw) and tilt (pitch).
  • The wet sensor module includes many types of instruments and is open to the sea water. It contains additional cameras that can be used to takes images either above or below the robot, a Doppler velocity log to calculate position, a current profiler to measure the water velocity, a depth sensor, an altimeter, and additional sonar to create large images of the ocean floor.
  • The electronics module includes a computer for data collection, an Ethernet port for data communication and control, and batteries. It also contains a custom-printed circuit board to help with translations between the various electronics and instruments. Icefin has 15 rechargeable lithium ion batteries that can provide up to eight hours of use, depending on activity level.

(Slide 15) The Icefin’s design has some great advantages. It can operate face up or face down. The electronics are rated for below-freezing temperatures and hundreds of meters of depth so that it can withstand harsh polar conditions. The modules can be separated for easier transport and it does not require a significant amount of heavy equipment to deploy it. It is lighter weight than many other ice exploration robots, especially when considering its great number and variety of scientific instruments. It is made to withstand the corrosive nature of seawater. Icefin is also narrow, which gives it a great advantage. Most robots that designed to explore underneath regions of ice have must start their journeys in the open ocean and then swim to the desired location. The Icefin’s compact size enables it to be inserted in a small hole anywhere on a vast ice sheet so it does not have to travel long distances and expend excessive amounts of energy to reach the intended target. All of these great features were developed during the engineering design process, which guided the process that made Icefin an innovative robot that solves many current ice exploration issues.

(Slides 16-17) Some of the major ice exploration challenges that still need to be solved are: You cannot see the robot after its deployed, it is hard to know the robot’s location, and you cannot communicate with it wirelessly. (For communication, Icefin uses a fiber optic tether.) It can also be difficult to figure out exactly where underwater robots are located. While GPS is great on land, it has its limitations in the water and under thick ice sheets. The signal cannot penetrate after a few meters, and even if it could, the signal would be distorted by the water salinity, so it would not be accurate.

To address these issues, the future plan is for Icefin to use a navigation system that estimates position based on seafloor features. The system is called SLAM, which stands for “simultaneous localization and mapping.” It involves using lasers, landmarks and odometers to aid the robot in moving around and making a map of its surroundings while using the map at the same time! The computation is made using special algorithms, but it is not necessarily very accurate. SLAM technology is used in robotic vacuum cleaners and self-driving cars. Being able to track the robot is one area that needs more development, particularly for space missions. Icefin is outfitted for SLAM, but it has not been tested yet in the field.

Antarctica and Europa

(Slides 18-22) In order to plan missions to Europa, engineers need to work in a lab that simulates the conditions of the icy moon. What better than working in the field in Antarctica? This cold continent has many of the same features as Europa and serves as a great model for what its conditions might be like. While Europa will be much colder than Antarctica, it is believed to have a similar topography with ice shelves and giant glaciers. Icefin has already been tested in Antarctica.

Icefin was part of an exciting field experiment in 2014. A team of scientists and engineers took Icefin to Antarctica and tested it in the icy waters. Icefin took many measurements while several hundred meters beneath the ice and made many discoveries. Some of Icefin’s data has been useful for biologists and oceanographers, like the surprise discovery of a variety of marine life under the ice and the measurement of the depth of the seafloor in a previously uncharted area.

(Slide 23) While Icefin is already very high tech and innovative, it is a very early prototype of the type of robot that would be needed to go to Europa. At this point, Icefin is considered a proof of concept for Europa and engineers will continue to update its design after learning more from each voyage. It has already taken measurements in Antarctica and is scheduled to do the same in Greenland in the near future. Many more opportunities for experimentation will help to evolve the design plans.

Several major challenges will eventually need to be addressed by a robot like Icefin to prepare it for a Europa trip.

First, the mission designers will need to figure out a way to remotely drill a hole in the ice so the robot can go beneath the surface and into the ocean. This hole might need to be several hundred meters deep. During Icefin’s Antarctica voyage, a hole was pre-drilled by people—who will not be on the Europa mission!

Second, the robot will need to be autonomous, meaning it must have the capability to explore on its own without a person controlling it. Since Europa is so far away, the long time lapse in communication transmission between Earth and the robot—maybe waiting an hour for navigation commands—would not be practical.

Third, while the testing grounds in Antarctica are an extreme environment, it is nowhere near as cold and treacherous as Europa where temperatures are estimated to be about -200 ℃. That means all equipment will need to be able to operate in freezing conditions.

These are just a few of the many challenges with a Europa mission. That means that a lot of exciting work still needs to be done! Are you ready for Europa? To get a better idea of what it is like to search for life and explore new worlds, let’s move on to a hands-on robot activity. And then we’ll follow-up with an art activity.

Associated Activities

  • Robots on Ice Engineering Challenge - In a simulation of potential future space missions to Europa, student teams compete to put a robot equipped with a camera into a hidden maze to find the most “alien life.” From outside the maze, students watch a live smartphone feed and navigate the robot by remote control, making a map as they go. This activity mimics the real-world research of scientists and engineers developing a robot able to explore under the ice on Europa.
  • Continuous Line Robots and Art - Students take a new look at the robot paths generated from the associated activity maze simulation, seeing them from an art perspective as continuous line drawings. With the aid of a PowerPoint® presentation, they learn the artistic definition of a line and see examples of how it is used in art pieces, including Picasso’s well-known continuous line art. Then they practice making continuous line drawings and create colorful wire sculptures of them.


altimeter: An instrument that measures altitude.

current profiler: An instrument that tells the speed and direction of a current of water in conjunction with sound waves. Used to aid in navigation.

Doppler velocity log: An instrument that helps underwater robots navigate and determine position by using sound waves.

electrical conductivity: A measure of a material’s ability to conduct electricity. Ocean water has conductivity due to its salt content.

Europa (moon): One of Jupiter’s moons that is believed to have an outer shell made of ice with a liquid water ocean beneath it and an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

global positioning system: A network of space satellites used by devices to determine locations on Earth. Also called GPS.

Icefin: A long, cylindrically shaped robot designed to carry out scientific measurements under the ice in Antarctica that doubles as an early prototype for an underwater robot that could explore the oceans of Europa.

odometer: An instrument that indicates the distance a vehicle has traveled.

proof of concept: Making something to demonstrate that a certain method or idea is feasible, or to verify that a concept or theory has the potential of being used. A proof of concept is a small version of the full size product or device and may or may not be complete.

prototype: An early physical model of a product or device used for experimentation and testing to learn and improve it.

robot : A machine made of electrical and mechanical parts that is programmed to perform tasks.

simultaneous localization and mapping: Using a system of lasers, landmarks and odometers to aid a robot to move around and make a map of its surroundings while using the map for navigation at the same time. Also called SLAM.

sonar: A system that uses sound, usually underwater, to navigate, communicate with or detect objects under the water’s surface.


Pre-Lesson Assessment

Probing Questions about Space: Before beginning the lesson, have students answer the following questions in Part A of the Robots on Ice Student Worksheet.

  • Do you think life exists in outer space? (Student opinions will vary.)
  • Have scientists and engineers found life in outer space? What clues would we look for? (Answer: No, but many are hopeful that with ever-evolving technology, we have a better chance of finding life. We look first for water, but also chemical elements like carbon, and energy sources.)

Post-Introduction Assessment

AEIOU Reflection: After going through slide 7 (an infographic that compares the Earth to Europa), direct students to reflect on what they just learned so far about Europa and complete Part B of the Robots on Ice Student Worksheet. This portion of the worksheet asks them to fill in a word or sentence that represents each letter, AEIOU, in the form of adjectives, emotions, interesting, ohh!, uhh? Answers will vary, and they reveal what individual students are thinking about at this point in the lesson.

Lesson Summary Assessment

Ready for Europa? At lesson end, have students answer the three questions in Part C of the Robots on Ice Student Worksheet, which are reproduced below. Review their answers to gauge their depth of comprehension of the subject matter and concepts presented in the lesson.

  1. Compare the characteristics of Earth and Europa by using a Venn diagram. (Possible answer: It is believed that Europa has a liquid ocean like Earth, although Europa’s is greater by volume. Earth has areas that resemble Europa’s icy shell, like in Antarctica and Greenland. Europa is believed to have similar layers to Earth with a metal core that is covered by rock and then water. The Earth however is much warmer on the surface, has land, and life!)
  2. Do you think we will find life on Europa? Explain. (Student opinions will vary; but for those who think life is present on Europa, expect their answers to reflect the need to find conditions for life, like water.)
  3. While Icefin is an innovative robot, it still needs a lot of work before it is ready for a mission to Europa. What design challenges will engineers need to tackle before launch? (Possible answer: Many challenges still exist in preparing Icefin for a trip to Europa. Some simple examples include finding a way to drill through the ice, having a way to track the robot’s location under ice, having equipment that can survive freezing conditions, being able to withstand the strong radiation on Europa, delivering it a very long distance through space from Earth to Europa, etc.)

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students track the progress of the Europa mission by visiting its NASA website: https://www.nasa.gov/europa.

Additional Multimedia Support

If you are curious about SLAM, watch this 3:30-minute video demo, which coincidently looks similar to the associated robot activity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeNLUW79_-c.

For more information about Antarctica, this 4:25-minute Ted Ed video explains the difference between Antarctica and the Arctic: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-arctic-vs-the-antarctic-camille-seaman.

The 92-minute Antarctica: A Year on the Ice movie is a good resource: https://www.amazon.com/Antarctica-Year-Ice-Anthony-Powell/dp/B00P93XOX8.

If time permits, show students the following online article with many great photographs and video clips of Icefin’s adventures in Antarctica: http://www.rh.gatech.edu/features/explorers-poles.


Get the inside scoop on all things TeachEngineering such as new site features, curriculum updates, video releases, and more by signing up for our newsletter!
PS: We do not share personal information or emails with anyone.

More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Activity
Robots on Ice Engineering Challenge

In a simulation of potential future space missions to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, student teams are challenged to direct a robot placed in an enclosed maze to search for and find the most “alien life.” The student teams compete as if they are space agencies creating their own exploratory systems...


© 2016 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2015 Georgia Institute of Technology


Carrie Beth Rykowski; Ayanna Howard, Georgia Tech; Anthony Spears, Georgia Tech

Supporting Program

PRIME RET and CEISMC GIFT Programs, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Georgia Tech


This work was carried out by the author as part her PRIME GIFT (Georgia Intern Fellowship for Teachers) summer internship at the Bioengineering Division of Georgia Institute of Technology. Thank you to Ayanna Howard for letting me observe in your lab to learn more about robots. Thank you to Anthony Spears and GTRI (Georgia Tech Research Institute) for sharing your Icefin resources, experiences and expertise. Thank you to Jamila Cola for making possible the CEISMC (Center for Education Integrating Science, Math and Computing) summer program.

This activity was developed by the Partnerships for Research, Innovation and Multi-Scale Engineering (PRIME) Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Program at Georgia Institute of Technology, funded by National Science Foundation RET grant no. EEC 140718. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 1, 2019

Free K-12 standards-aligned STEM curriculum for educators everywhere.
Find more at TeachEngineering.org