Alaskan Survival Game: Intro to Basic Economic Reasoning

Project overview:
Intended to serve as an introduction to scarcity and basic economic reasoning, students will work in small groups to develop a series of survival plans that would enable them to live through an imagined, life threatening situation. This lesson is an expansion of an activity developed by the NCEE in 2003, adapted to incorporate several of Gee’s principles of learning.

  • Poster paper.
  • Notebook paper.
  • Colored markers.
  • Either projection material or student handouts describing groups’ “starting supplies.”
  • Map projection labeled with “you are here” to indicate groups’ starting points.

  1. Students will make a poster demonstrating economic decisions made to utilize scarce resources in order to live through an imagined survival situation.
  2. Students will write a short paragraph explaining how scarcity forces us to make choices.

1: Break the class into groups of approximately 4-5 students and tell them that they will be taking part in a game to see who could survive being shipwrecked and stranded on an Alaskan Island (note: the actual location/circumstance of the survival situation is up to teacher discretion, but the teacher must be prepared to provide information about local climate, terrain, weather, plant and wildlife, etc.).

2: Distribute poster paper and markers to each group. If desired, the game can be made more competitive by having each group come up with a team name and recording those names on the board, along with the number of attempts it takes each team to survive each round of the game. However, the game can be just as effective without this step.

3: Project the ”starting point” map for your chosen location (an island off the coast of southern Alaska) and describe the groups’ initial predicament. Tell the class that each group was on a fishing trip off the coast of Alaska with one of their teachers when their boat unexpectedly sank. All the students survived and made it to shore uninjured, but their teacher was knocked unconscious and had to be dragged to shore. Tell the groups that they made it to a small, rocky beach, and there is a pine forest not far inland. When they get to shore, it is early morning, raining, and the group members are in serious danger of hypothermia after spending time in the frigid water.

4:Then display the resources that each group managed to salvage:
  • Two small knife
  • One hatchet
  • Two rain poncho
  • Two wood paddles
  • Three life vests
  • A match box with five waterproof matches
  • A 20ft nylon cord
  • One compass
  • Wet clothing (what they are wearing)

5. Tell each group to fold their poster paper into fourths to make four equal quadrants once reopened. Working on notebook paper, tell the class that their first task is to develop a 10 minute survival plan. Students are to write down a step-by-step plan detailing exactly what they will do to survive the first ten minutes on the island, including writing down what choices they make about how to use their resources and the opportunity costs involved with each of those choices (Note: if opportunity cost has not yet been introduced, this activity provides many excellent examples to understand cost in terms other than money). Give the class time to develop their plans.

6: Tell the class to call you over once they think they have a winning plan, so they can share it with you. As they do, assess whether each group made sufficient decisions to insure their survival (Did they correctly address their most immediate needs instead of waisting energy on long term goals? Did they use their resources in a way that would feasibly achieve those needs? Did they remember to save the teacher?). If not, inform the group that they didn’t survive and must try again. Those that did may illustrate their plan in the first quadrant of their poster paper and move on to the next round (Note: most groups will likely fail to survive the first round of the game on their first attempt).

7:The game gan continue to whatever extent is appropriate (either until all groups survive the ordeal, or until the first group makes it). Repeat steps five and six for all for rounds. As they progress through rounds, immediate needs, choices, and use of resources will change as follows:
Round 2: Overnight Plan
In round one, the most immediate need the groups should have addressed was heat. In round 2, that need becomes shelter. Students must choose how to use or gather resources to build a sufficient shelter to survive the night, while being sure not to overlook their continued need for heat. Often, students try to use their resources to begin gathering food at the expense of shelter, but at this point, shelter is a more immediate need and those that do not build ample shelter cannot survive to the next round.
Round 3: One Week Plan
Now, food becomes an immediate need. For those groups that protected their teacher, he or she now regains consciousness and may assist the group with knowledge of small animal trapping. In any case, students must make a step-by-step plan of how they will gather enough food to survive, recording their resource use and opportunity costs.
Round 4: Stay or Go?
In the final round, students must choose whether it is a better idea to stay where they are and wait for rescue or try to escape the island on their own. To do so, each group should complete a cost-benefit analysis table before developing their plans.

9: Once the game is complete, lead the class in a discussion over how the concept of scarcity applies to a survival situation and how each choice made came either with an immediate opportunity cost or one that came in the future. Students should recognize that scarcity is what forced them to choose how to use their resources, demonstrating the most basic of economizing behavior.

10: After the discussion, close by asking students to write a quick paragraph responding to the prompt:

“What is the relationship between scarcity and human choices? Be sure to use at least one example of an instance of scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost from the game.”

Intrinsic Learning Principles:
  • Active, Critical Learning Principle:
Anyone can hear a definition and write it down. For some, that form of learning is even sufficient to understand a concept. However, most learn far more effectively when able to actively engage in some way. Reasoning through a survival situation is not necessary to understand basic economic thinking, but it gives students a way to link such concepts to more basic ideas than money and production, and it does so in a way that allows students to think rather than hear.
  • Self Knowledge Principle:
Unlike most digital video games, this game allows students to imaginatively place themselves in a survival situation, bringing their own knowledge and abilities to the game. Although the game is designed to explore economic concepts, the application of those topics to a survival situation allows to explore their current capacities in a potential real world situation.
  • Psychosocial Moratorium:
Hopefully, none of the students will ever find themselves in a legitimate survival situation, but this activity allows students to explore their options and the decisions they could make in such a situation without the danger of injury or death. With that experience, students will be able to more critically think about decisions once in a real survival situation, or more likely, to apply the concepts learned to less dangerous decisions made each day.

Featured Learning Principle:
  • Probing Principle:
Although I have used this activity in class before, for the purposes of this project I adapted and expanded the game to make better use of Gee’s Probing Principle. While the above principles are naturally included in the original activity, my changes bring in a “trial and error” element that will hopefully highlight the game-like element of the activity. In each round, students must develop a survival plan. If their plan is insufficient, they do not survive and must try again. In this way, students make their best guess at how best to use their resources. If unsuccessful, they receive feedback about what they did wrong (feedback can be as simple as teacher questioning: “You went to look for food? I guess you froze to death!” or “Who made sure the teacher got warmed up? Nobody? Try again!”). With that feedback in mind, students can try another tactic and see if they survive the second time. This approach may not be completely necessary to teach basic economic concepts imbedded in the activity, but it can heighten its game-like elements, hopefully making the entire experience more impactful.

Lesson adapted from:
Lopus, J. S., Morton, J. S., Reinke, R., Schug, M. C., & Wentworth, D. R. (2003). Capstone: exemplary lessons for high school economics : teacher's guide. New York, N.Y.: National Council on Economic Education. (Original work published )
Visuals from the above text are available here.