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Survival in the Desert Groupwork Task

Survival in the Desert is a cooperative groupwork task. I have used this task in the past as a first week of school activity.

I learned about this activity from reading Kagan’s Cooperative Learning book. I’ve seen the same activity featured in other books as well since then.

Today I want to share some free downloads I created to make it easier to implement the Survival in the Desert task.

I created a task card to give to each group to explain the rules of the survival in the desert activity.

To begin, groups are given a story to read. I had to slightly modify the story from its original published form due to mentions of vodka and cigarettes. Here’s my modified version of the survival in the desert story for classroom use:

It is approximately 10:00 a.m. in mid July, and you have just crash landed in the Sonora Desert in the southwestern United States.  The light twin engine plane, containing the bodies of the pilot and the co-pilot, has completely burned.  Only the air frame remains  None of the rest of you have been injured.

The pilot was unable to notify anyone of your position before the crash.  However, ground sightings, taken before you crashed, indicate that you are 65 miles off the course that was filed in your VFR Flight Plan.  The pilot has indicated before you crashed that you were approximately 70 miles south-southwest from a mining camp which is the nearest known habitation. 

The immediate area is quite flat and except for occasional barrel and saguaros cacti appears to be rather barren.  The last weather report indicated that temperatures would reach 110° F which means that the temperature within a foot of the surface will hit 130° F.  You are dressed in light-weight clothing—short sleeved shirts, pants, socks, and street shoes.  Everyone has a handkerchief.  Collectively, your pockets contain $2.83 in change, $85.00 in bills, and a ballpoint pen.

Before the plane caught fire, your group was able to salvage 14 items.  Your task is to rank these items according to their importance for your survival, starting with “1” the most important to “14” the least important.  

You may assume that the number of survivors is the same as the number on your team, and the team has agreed to stick together.

I printed and laminated the Survival in the Desert story so each group could have a copy to refer to throughout the activity.


drawing of laminator machine with text "laminating recommendations"

A laminator is a MUST-HAVE for me as a math teacher! I spent my first six years as a teacher at a school with a broken laminator, so I had to find a way to laminate things myself.

I’ve had several laminators over the years. I currently use a Scotch laminator at home and a Swingline laminator at school.

I highly recommend splurging a bit on the actual laminator and buying the cheapest laminating pouches you can find!

After reading the story, the team must decide whether they will stay at the crash site or go for help. Groups should not move on until they have chosen one of these options.

Survival in the Desert Groupwork Activity Story

Each member of the team is to individually rank each item in order of importance for survival. Groups should not discuss the situation or problem until each member has finished their individual ranking.

I printed the ranking sheets two to a page for students to do their individual rankings on.

Survival in the Desert Groupwork Activity Ranking Sheets

Once group discussion begins, individual rankings should not be changed.

I printed a large ranking sheet for each group to complete as they work through the task as a team.

Survival in the Desert Groupwork Activity Ranking Form

My intention for this task was to practice three of our groupwork norms:

  • Listen to others’ ideas.
  • Give reasons for your suggestions.
  • Disagree with ideas, not people.
Group Work Norm - Give Reasons for Your Suggestions

If you are looking for other activities to practice groupwork norms, I recommend checking out Broken Circles, Rainbow Logic, Guess My Rule, and the Two Buckets Puzzle.

After each group had made their rankings, I revealed the correct answers from a survival expert. This activity was apparently taken from the Air Force Survival Training Manual.

Survival in the Desert Groupwork Activity - Correct Rankings

Thankfully, the book I got this activity from also included an explanation of why each item is helpful/harmful. This was very interesting for me to read through!

Survival in the Desert Groupwork Activity Correct Rankings

After discussing the proper plan for survival, I had each group complete a reflection sheet on the activity. The point of this reflection is to refocus students on the norms that we are trying to practice as a class.

Survival in the Desert Groupwork Activity Reflection Form