Stranded Mathematicians Activity: A Fun Group Activity for the First Week of School

Last summer I read the book, Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. This book was absolutely fantastic and full of great ways to engage students. I would highly, highly, highly recommend it to any teacher!

One of his tactics for helping students learn how to properly work in groups in his class is to have students work in groups to complete a Survivor-type activity. He gave them an extremely engaging back-story and explained that half of the individuals from a plane crash would be able to leave the island and the other half would have to remain stranded. He gave the groups the task of deciding who should stay and who should go.

Burgess explained that this activity helped him get to know his students, got them excited about working with each other and helped them engage in critical thinking. I thought this activity sounded great, so I wanted to design a similar activity for the first week of school.

I am not nearly as out-going as Dave Burgess, so my opening was a little less extraordinary, however, I really felt like my students enjoyed my version of the activity, and they even retained some of the facts about the mathematicians until the very end of the school year, which was a win in my book!

This activity could easily be adjusted to work in a different content area. You could include facts about authors, book characters, historical figures, scientists, or pop culture figures.

Stranded Mathematicians Activity

I began by having students sit in groups of 3-4 students. I started the class by explaining that they were going to engage in a strategy game today. I put a slide up on the board that read:

Ten mathematicians have been in a plane crash and have landed on the Island of Mathematica. A helicopter is coming to save five of the mathematicians, but the other five will be left to survive on the island. You and your group will work together to decide who gets to leave on the helicopter and who will remain on the island. Be ready to share your reasons why!

I then introduced them to each of the mathematicians by showing them a PowerPoint I made with a picture of each mathematician and some facts about each mathematician. Here are the facts and the mathematicians I included:


  • Known as the “Father of Geometry”
  • Wrote the Elements which provides the background for the Geometry we study today.
  • He spoke Greek.

Leonhard Euler

  • He went blind in both eyes and still wrote a lot of math papers.
  • The mathematical constant e is named after him.
  • His work is still being published today.
  • He is considered one of the greatest mathematicians to have ever lived.


  • Thought the Earth was the center of the solar system and wrote an entire book explaining why.
    • While this is incorrect, all of his explanations accurately explain how the planets move!
  • He was really good at making maps.

George Polya

  • He wrote How to Solve It, which is a book about how to solve problems in math.
  • His book has sold over a million copies!
  • Artificial intelligence programs were inspired by his work.
  • He was Hungarian, but lived almost half his life in America.
  • He lived to be 97 years old!


  • He is known as the most famous mathematician and inventor in Ancient Greece.
  • He constructed war machines that helped delay the capture of Syracuse by the Romans in 213 BCE.
  • He made developments about the Geometry behind curved surfaces.
  • He invented the Archimedes screw which raises water to higher ground.

Rene Descartes

  • He was a philosopher and is known as the father of modern Western philosophy.
  • He is the father of coordinate Geometry (he made the coordinate plane that you use to graph points)
  • He has the famous quote, “I think, therefore I am.”

Isaac Newton

  • Wrote a physics book that explains the laws of motion and the theory of gravity.
  • He is given credit for developing Calculus.
  • He designed and made a reflecting telescope.


  • He developed the Pythagorean Theorem which is used to find the side lengths of right triangles.
  • He was the leader of a cult and prohibited his followers from eating beans.
  • He did not believe in irrational numbers.


  • She was a rebel – she studied math when women were not allowed to learn math.
  • She was the earliest documented female mathematician.
  • She wrote commentaries on the work of a lot of other mathematicians.
  • She was the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer of her time.

Ada Lovelace

  • She was the first computer programmer.
  • She recognized that computers could be used as more than a calculator.
  • She had three children.
  • Her father was considered insane, so her mother had her study mathematics to prevent her from becoming like her father.

I also provided each group with printed copies of each slide so they could revisit the information. I made the copies of the slides four to a page, which made them small enough that they could be used to sort.

While the kids were working, I moved around the room to answer any questions they had and to listen in on their conversations. It was awesome to hear how much they were interacting with the information about the mathematicians. I also got to know more about individual students, how they worked with others, and how they formed ideas.

When it was time for the groups to share their answers, all of the groups had slightly different answers. The students were really excited to share their reasoning, especially when another group disagreed. While students had differing opinions, the whole class kept a positive attitude and worked on forming good arguments rather than being mean, which was fantastic.

I absolutely loved this activity and so did my students. I plan to use this again this year, and I hope you will give it a try too!

If you use this activity in your classroom, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Happy planning!

~ Candace 🙂