Friday, December 12, 2020
For Immediate Release

The Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge Engages
K-College Students in Inquiry-Based Learning

Quincy, MA – Educators at all grade levels have pivoted their teaching practices throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by responding to changing demands and rising to challenges of remote, hybrid, and safe in-person education. The Wade Institute for Science Education, along with partners National Marine Life Center and Lloyd Center for the Environment, developed the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge to more effectively support teachers at this time. 

The Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge was one of eight educational events offered to schools during Massachusetts STEM Week, a statewide initiative to increase awareness of STEM education and careers that was sponsored by the Executive Office of Education and the STEM Advisory Council in partnership with Regional STEM Networks. Hands-on learning ‘challenges’ were designed to promote equity and inclusion in STEM education and inspire students to consider STEM careers. Through the immersion of students in STEM activities and connections to industry leaders, the 2020 Massachusetts STEM Week enabled students to see themselves in STEM.

What exactly was the challenge? Students had to role play that they were stranded on an uninhabited island with no clean water nearby. To survive, they needed to find a water source, transport water to their encampment, and filter it to make it safe for drinking. Classroom teachers were provided with a kit of materials, including tubing, solar panels, coffee filters, pumps, and other supplies to enable the students to test a variety of options and fully engage in hands-on, minds-on learning. 

The Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge brought together educators working at different grade levels from around the state as well as from around the country. Educators met on Zoom in October for an interactive, remote professional development workshop during which they gained hands-on experience investigating water transportation and filtration, and talked out ideas for the many ways in which the challenge might be implemented in their remote, hybrid, or socially distanced and safe in-person classrooms. Though the goal was to implement the activities during Massachusetts’ state-wide STEM Week, determining how to conduct the student-led, inquiry-based activities in the midst of changing demands proved to be a challenge in and of itself for educators.

Implementing the Challenge

“The challenge was open-ended, providing the opportunity for students to be creative in how they were going to solve the challenge. It was very adaptable to a wide variety of learning styles and age levels,” says Wade Institute Education Specialist Margaret Brumsted. She co-led the professional development workshops in partnership with Kathy Zagzebski, Executive Director of the National Marine Life Center, and Rachel Stronach, Executive Director of the Lloyd Center for the Environment. Brumsted described how these three partner organizations had designed the Survivor Island Challenge activity a few years prior and tested it during a Summer Professional Development Institute with educators who then implemented it in their own classrooms. Following feedback from those educators and in response to teachers’ transition to remote learning models during the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge was redesigned and moved to an entirely remote format (including materials kits for ease of teacher implementation) for the 2020 Massachusetts STEM Week. 

“Teachers were really excited. They were all there because they wanted to be there,” Margaret says, stating her amazement at educators’ ability to effectively adapt to ever-growing demands of their jobs by constantly seeking resources, being open to new ways to engage students, and finding energy reserves to work through a pandemic. 

The Elementary School Experience

Karen Hurley was one of the elementary school teachers who participated in the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge. Her school, Hildreth Elementary School in Harvard, MA, is currently following a hybrid model of instruction. Students are primarily meeting in-person (socially distanced with masks) until about 1:30 p.m. four days a week. They finish those four days remotely, and then switch to a fully remote learning model for one day a week. Karen says that the model has been working well for them so far and that her students have been very cooperative. “Everyone helps each other figure it out,” Karen says about remote learning. “Educators help students and students help educators.”

Karen has been working on the Challenge with her students during the remote sessions. She keeps her students engaged online by giving each one a role. For instance, she utilized her school’s remote Wednesdays to coordinate the swapping of supplies between students. Materials would rotate between students over a four week timespan so that they all could try their hands at designing a water transportation and filtration system. Students who were not using materials that week watched their peers on Zoom and recorded scientific observations.

One day, a parent spotted the solar panels his child was using for the activity and treated the class to an impromptu talk about sustainable energy! Karen noted that this unique moment was made possible because meeting virtually granted her students access to a STEM professional who may not have had time to visit them at school and whose enthusiasm for science matched that of the class. 

The Middle School Experience

Pallavi Naravane is coach of Planet Robotics in North Attleboro, MA, and a technology teacher with an electrical engineering background. She had her sixth grade students act out the entire challenge from landing on the uninhabited island to designing a water transportation and filtration system using the materials provided by the Wade Institute. Since she implemented the challenge prior to STEM Week, her students recorded their experience. “We did this investigation in a backyard, and the kids had so much FUN,” she said, “The hands-on engineering activities have been a much needed, welcome change in the age of virtual learning.” Her Planet Robotics teams’ engagement in and excitement for the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge was evident in their video, which can now be viewed on the Wade Institute’s social media.

The High School Experience

Jane Chick, a high school teacher at Collaborative for Educational Services in North Grafton, MA, was thrilled to participate in the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge. She had been on the lookout for professional development opportunities that would enable her to bring more inquiry-based learning to her in-person classroom and the challenge proved to be aptly timed.

After having the chance to test the activity herself, Jane decided that it would be fun for her small class to visualize themselves on a real island and then conceptualize their survival story. Her students took control of their own learning by conducting a series of investigations and developing data sheets to document their progress and record results. While designing their water filtration system, they discovered that moss acts as a natural filter. They also took the activity of designing solar water fountains one step further to examine the effects of water pressure on water transport. Pleased with her students’ learning outcomes, Jane says, “The problem solving and real-life application of all the challenges presented during this week were extremely engaging for the students.”

The College Experience

Anne Gatling, an Associate Professor and Co-Director of STEM Education at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, keeps current on state-wide STEM education initiatives by following the happenings of the Northeast STEM Network. When she saw the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge announced, Anne knew it would be a good fit for her undergraduate and graduate students (many of whom are pre-service or in-service educators).

Anne hoped to implement the challenge in her socially-distanced, in-person classes by taking the activity outside. She laughed, saying that the mess of transporting water didn’t matter so much outside and that class is always more enjoyable outside anyway. The only draw-back to implementing the challenge was a necessary shift back to remote learning due to a coronavirus scare on campus. How did Anne respond? 

Anne looked at her calendar and mapped out her curriculum timelines. She plans to watch the weather in the springtime for a nice, sunny day when her students will want to be outside. She’ll focus on the water filtration system with them and then give them free creative reign to design the water transportation systems. Since her students are either planning to or currently do work in schools, Anne is anticipating that some of her students might come up with novel ideas for conducting the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge (or components of it) with elementary, middle, or high school students. She’s excited to see the outcomes and to be part of many people’s STEM learning journeys.

Surviving the Challenges of 2020

Educators teaching kindergarten to college grades say that the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge engaged their students in science using imagination, inquiry, and innovation. As part of the challenge, forty-four educators brought hands-on, minds-on learning to students in their public school, alternative school, learning cooperative, after school program, or college pre-service teaching program. Implementation of the inquiry-based activities varied greatly depending on the school or program’s current learning model (remote, hybrid, in-person), instructional methods that work best for each class, and the grade levels of the students participating. Despite these variances, the Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge proved to be effective in developing students’ interest in STEM by tapping their natural curiosity using real-to-life examples of science applications. 

Educators like Karen, Pallavi, Jane, and Anne have swiftly pivoted more than a few times to overcome the challenges of teaching through the pandemic. Each shared a glimpse into their current classroom situation by talking about their Survivor Island STEM Week Challenge experience. Their stories made it clear that these educators have continued to engage their students in inquiry-based science learning whether in their in-person, hybrid, or remote classrooms. Even after Massachusetts’ STEM Week is over, they are still thinking about ways to implement the challenge to find more innovative outcomes and incorporate more solar technology into their lessons. As 2020 comes to a close and they look ahead to 2021, teachers of all grades in any situation can say that so far they have survived a very challenging year.


The Wade Institute for Science Education specializes in providing inquiry-based, hands-on, minds-on, science, technology and engineering professional development for K-12 teachers and informal educators.  For more information, visit or call 617-328-1515.

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