Participants (adults or students in 4th grade and up) participate in an activity in which groups represent families. Individuals in each family represent generations over time. All participants draw from a common non-renewable resource to survive.

Lesson Objectives

Curriculum Context


Students will:

  • Identify underlying mental models that emerge as people participate in the activity
  • Connect the activity to interdependent systems within other appropriate contexts, e.g. economics, science, social studies
Next Generation Science Standards – Examples of relevant standards

5th Grade 5-ESS3-1
Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

Middle School MS-ESS3-4
Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems.

High School HS-LS2-7
Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.

National Standards for Social Studies (from NCSS)
Issues surrounding the use of natural resources are embedded throughout the standards.  These are three examples showing connections to elements of the game.

“People’s wants often exceed the limited resources available to them, and as a result,they have invented a variety of ways to answer four fundamental questions: What is to be produced? How is production to be organized? How are goods and services to be distributed? How shall factors of production (land, labor, capital, and management)be allocated? Learners need to understand these universal questions and how they are being addressed by various groups. They also need to understand that unequal distribution of resources necessitates systems of exchange, including trade, to improve the well-being of individual groups, and the economy; that the role of government in economic policy-making varies over time and from place to place; that increasingly economic decisions are global in scope and require systematic study of an interdependent world economy; and that technology plays a significant role in economic decision making.”


  • “…guide learner analysis of the relationships and tensions between national sovereignty and global interests in such matters as territorial disputes, economic development, nuclear and other weapons deployment, use of natural resources, and human rights concerns.”
  • For example “High school teachers…can help learners see how differing points of view and self-interest play roles in conflict over territory and resources.”


  • “Productive resources are limited. Therefore, people cannot have all the goods and services that they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.”
  • For example, “Teachers of the early grades can provide learners with experiences that enable them to understand the concepts of resources, economic wants, supply and demand, goods and services, and opportunity costs. They can help learners see that resources are insufficient to provide everyone with everything they want, that people make choices that determine how resources are used, and that choice means that something is given up.”
  • Accumulations
  • Interdependencies
  • Change over time
  • Mental models
  • System structure
Materials Time Systems Tools
Large tub with beans (approx. 5 lb bag for  every 20 people)

  • 1 clear, plastic cup (16 oz or larger) for each person.  This is referred to as the “life cup.”
  • One gathering utensil per family (teaspoon, tablespoon, tweezers, small coffee scoop, tongue depressor, 3 oz cup)
  • 1 ruler per family
  • Timer
  • Behavior-over-time graph template for each family (see accompanying document)
  • PowerPoint presentation to introduce and debrief the activity (optional)
  • Chart paper or white board to record responses during debrief
  • Habits of a Systems Thinker (cards, poster, one-page handout, or slide to use during debrief)
  • Habits of a Systems Thinker (cards, poster, one-page handout, or slide to use during debrief)
Approximately one hour, depending on options selected for debrief
  • Behavior-over-time graphs
  • Habits of a Systems Thinker
  • Iceberg visual (optional)
  • Stock and flow diagram (optional)

Implemented by: Waters Foundation

Submitted by: Waters Foundation

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