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Distillation in Survival Mode Mark as Favorite (11 Favorites)

ACTIVITY in Separating Mixtures, Phase Changes, Physical Change, Distillation. Last updated December 14, 2023.


In this activity, students will investigate methods for purifying water as they consider a survival based situation that requires clean drinking water. Students will investigate processes such as boiling and distillation, as well as review the phase changes within the water cycle.

Grade Level

Middle School

NGSS Alignment

This activity will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • Science and Engineering Practices:
    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions


By the end of this activity, students should be able to:

  • Describe the distillation process, including specific reference to evaporation and condensation.
  • Explain the changes in states of matter during distillation.
  • Understand that water is an essential need for the human body.
  • Explain how a solar heat source can cause the temperature of water to rise and cause a physical change.
  • Create a clean water supply by the process of distillation.

Chemistry Topics

This activity supports students’ understanding of

  • Distillation
  • Physical Change
  • Separating Mixtures
  • States of Matter
  • Phase Changes


Teacher Preparation: 10 minutes

Lesson: 1 hour


  • Student Activity Sheet
  • Computer/Tablet with internet access


  • No specific safety precautions need to be observed for this activity.

Teacher Notes

  • Begin this activity by introducing the scenario presented on the student handout. This could be read aloud, or students can read it independently from the handout. Then lead the class in a discussion using the initial 3 questions on the student handout. Allow students to answer them on their own first, and then have students share their responses and record them on a chart, board, etc. so they are visible to all of the students.
  • Next, introduce the concept of potable water (pronounced poh-tuh-bul), or drinkable water. It will soon become the family’s most important need. In this activity, science will be used to discover how to make sure that the family will have a potable, or clean, water source to survive while awaiting rescue.
  • The following concepts will be discussed: water purification, the water cycle, distillation, phase changes, and the states of matter.
  • For the “Research” section of the student handout, the website/resource included is a link to the Outdoor Life website’s post about survival skills. The title and link for the post are: Survival Skills: 10 Ways to Purify Water.
  • You may wish to have students use an alternative resource for their resource. You can instruct students how to proceed based on their ability level. Students may be given time to do some independent research, or brainstorm together about the water purification techniques. Below are some examples of discussions that can be used with students. (Remind the students that they have to have a constant water supply for all water purification):
    • Boiling water: What is needed in order to boil water in this situation? Responses: this requires a constant water supply, fire, pot or other item to hold the water (the item must be able to withstand heat).
    • Water purification tablets: Do you carry water purification tablets with you all of the time? Were you expecting to need those things on this trip (refer them back to the beginning scenario)?
    • Water filtration system: In the original scenario, did it state that you and your family had access to a water filter in your vehicle? Is this a reasonable water filtration source for you and your family?
    • Solar still: What do you think is a solar still? What do you think is needed to create a solar still? Define “still”.
    • Distillation: Is heat required? Have you seen this before? Is an equipment needed?
  • Lead the students to a discussion of the water cycle and discuss evaporation and condensation. Use this as segue into the steps to the distillation process, and the change in states of matter.


  • This activity can be followed with an optional demonstration of Distillation; this video is a good quick example.
  • Solar water distillation could also be demonstrated or shown via video.
  • AACT has a simple distillation lab that could be used with students.

For the Student



You are on vacation, taking a road trip with your parents. Your dad discovers a mountainous view that, he thinks, the whole family needs to see. Using Google maps and Siri, he drives the car down several dirt roads off of the paved highways that he has been traveling. Each path has more trees than the last, until finally you do not recognize any of the roads as a pathway out. Suddenly the car comes to a clearing and your dad stops the vehicle. You have made it to the top of a mountain to see the view. He is very excited and orders everyone out of the car to share in the excitement.

After several family photographs your mom says it’s time to go back down the mountain and get some lunch. After piling back into the car, dad begins to drive back down the mountain, struggling to remember how he got to the top in the first place. Suddenly, a deer darts across the path! Dad slams on the breaks, swerves to miss the deer, and BAM! He hits a tree. The car is totaled! Mom makes a quick check to make sure everyone is ok. Your mind is racing, your heart is pounding, and you have no cell phone service in your current location, no food in the car, you and your family are stranded!


  1. What do you think you and your family should do?
  2. You have seen those reality TV survival shows; you are trying to remember what to do. What are the 3 basic needs that you and your family will need to survive?
  3. Do you think that something you learned in science class that could help you and your family survive you current situation? How, do you think, you knowledge of science could help you to survive?


  1. Using your device, go to the Outdoor Life website to learn about Survival Skills: 10 Ways to Purify Water. Then, complete this chart of water purification techniques. Explain how each technique can provide your family with clean drinking water.


Purification Tablets


Solar (SODIS)


A Technique of your choosing

  1. Draw the water cycle and circle the 2 parts that are necessary for water distillation:
  2. Identify the phase change in the water cycle above. List and explain each below using proper vocabulary.
  3. Explain how the distillation process works making certain to identify the different states of matter applicable in this process.