Note: This unit was developed in 2019 by a team of UW undergraduate student interns as part of our LIFT Project. They published these lessons and activities online with

Unit Summary

There is increasing interest in human space exploration beyond the Moon’s orbit, such as venturing to Mars. However, the effects of radiation are still a major concern for such travel. Astronauts need shielding from radiation. One testing method is to send materials into near space and measure radiation levels using Geiger counters. Teams of engineers on such projects need to be aware of design constraints, such as budgets, material limitations, and public support.

Through role playing and problem solving, this unit prompts a competition between two teams of students (i.e., space agencies) to design and build a shielding device to protect humans traveling in space. Each team builds an Arduino payload that includes a small Geiger radiation sensor that measures certain types of radiation coming from outer space. The sensor represents a human traveling to space. The students have specific roles (e.g., computer scientist, engineer, economist, etc.). They work together to design shielding to block the radiation from reaching the sensor. The team that develops the most effective shielding wins!

Grade Level: High School


  • Space Agency Scenario
  • Payload Development
  • Balloon Flight
  • Data Analysis

Subject Areas

  • Physics
  • Earth Science
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Engineering
  • Computer Science

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Define different types of radiation, especially those in cosmic rays
  • Explain why shielding from radiation is important for astronauts traveling in space
  • Articulate how their role and responsibilities contribute to their team accomplishing its mission

Student Roles

Students on each team will be given specific roles and tasks that contribute to the overall team objectives. This allows students with varying interests and skill levels to still participate in some capacity. These roles can either be assigned by the instructor or chosen by the students. The roles include Director, Research Scientist, Engineer, Computer Scientist, Economist, and Marketing Representative. Ideally, each team will have between 6 and 10 students, although some roles can be eliminated if fewer students are available.

The Payloads

Each team will assemble their own Arduino payload system. This activity comes with very detailed instructions for students to follow. All parts and supplies should be acquired and organized beforehand. If instructors wish to purchase their own payload supplies, some basic soldering is required prior to assembly. The total cost of parts for one Arduino payload is approximately $200. For best results, three payloads should be assembled—two with shielding developed by each of the teams and one control payload that does not contain any shielding. The instructor may wish to assemble the control payload ahead of time to become familiar with the process.

Part (# per payload)DescriptionLinks
Arduino Mega 2560 (1)The more powerful Arduino Mega is preferred over the Arduino UnoAmazon | SparkFun
Ethernet Shield (1)Allows for easy integration of the microSD cardAdafruit
Geiger Radiation Sensor (1)Measures both Beta and Gamma particlesDigiKey | SparkFun
GPS Breakout Board (1)Provides accurate time and altitude for all measurementsAmazon | Adafruit
GPS Antenna (1)For improved signal reception (3-m or 5-m length works well)Sparkfun | Adafruit
SMA-to-uFL Adapter (1)Allows connection between GPS board and antennaAdafruit | SparkFun
Breadboard (1)Allows for adequate wiring and sharing of voltageAmazon (pack of 6)
Jumper Wires (various)Used to connect all electronic components to ArduinoAmazon (variety pack)
Battery Pack (1)Arduino needs a constant 7–12 V (LiPo or Lithium Ion are a must)???
Optional: Arduino Mount (1)Securely mount Arduino and breadboard next to each otherSparkFun