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Geoethics Forums: The Grey Side of Green

Shaun Taylor, University of Washington / Educurious


Geoethics Forums is a format for a classroom discussion and creative resolution of an ethical issue. Students research a particular dilemma, identify stakeholders, and then consider possible solutions and tradeoffs working towards the most acceptable path. This example case study explores the use of strategic minerals for green and clean technology.


High school Earth Science – undergrad non majors geoscience

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students would benefit by knowing about mineral resource mining, refining and lifecycle issues.

How the activity is situated in the course
The activity could be used as course introduction to set the stage for research and discovery of course content. It could also be used for a culminating activity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
From Next Generation Science Standards

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Synthesis, application, seeing multiple points of view

Other skills goals for this activity
Collaboration in groups, research, oral presentation, role playing

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Students explore tradeoffs around issue.

Description and Teaching Materials

Geoethics Forums is a format for a classroom discussion and creative resolution of an ethical issue. Students research a particular dilemma, identify stakeholders, and then consider possible solutions and tradeoffs working towards the most acceptable path. Learn more about Geoethics Forums and how to conduct them.

In this project, students will research and conduct a Geoethics Forum, a kind of role-playing and collaborative problem solving simulation. The Geoethics Forum will lead to understanding and possible resolution of a thorny personal or social issue that has emerged due to new technology. The example case study provided focuses on the use of strategic minerals for green and clean technology.


Case Study Scenario

Geoethics Issue Starter: The Grey Side of Green - Download this example (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May10 14)


How do we evaluate the impacts and tradeoffs for green technology development and the supply and demand patterns for rare strategic minerals?


Emerging energy efficient and renewable energy technologies increasingly rely on the properties of rare minerals. Rare earth minerals are 17 elements in the periodic table which have desirable chemical properties in alloys and new materials. A typical electric vehicle uses 4.5 kg of rare earth materials. Often the suppliers for these materials are outside of the US due to the location of mineral deposits, or due to the economics of extraction, cost of labor, environmental regulations, or government policies. Some of the key elements are listed below.

Perspectives to consider

Teaching Notes and Tips

The forum should not be a debate. The goal is to understand different positions and then seek a common ground resolution. The Grey Side of Green Scenario is posed as a general, open ended problem. This could be done in a much more personalized manner using the following hypothetical scenario starter.

The principle investigator of the solar cell research research center Jan Soleul develops thin cell plastic solar cells. These devices have the potential of replacing silicon cells by being mass produced in roll printers much like printing plastic bags. Plastic solar cells are flexible and lightweight. They can be applied to windows or wall surfaces potentially turning an entire building into a solar panel. The cells do require a transparent conducting layer which collects charge from the organic layers beneath. Indium tin oxide or ITO is the most common conductor also used in touchscreen computers and phones. Soleul had applied for a special grant from the University energy innovation fund. She was rejected with the following statement from a reviewer. "While your research design is exemplary and your innovative device has promise to greatly decrease the cost of solar technology we are disappointed that you still rely on the standard ITO conductor material. As you know China has dominated the world supply for this element and has recently indicated its willingness to use mineral resources to apply leverage for political advantage. The extraction and refining of indium is also problematic. It is also unethical in our view to export our pollution to poor countries.

How should Soleul respond?


Students use a rubric to compare solutions. Teachers look at the geoethical worksheet that each student prepares.

References and Resources

Resources for the Grey Side of Green forum:

Further Research

Geoethics Forums: The Grey Side of Green -- Discussion  

Scientific Accuracy:

Alignment of Goals, Activity, Assessment: Excellent alignment between the goals, the activity, and the assessment (worksheet).

Pedagogical Effectiveness: Emphasizes active learning and seeking information online. It is unclear how the teacher would structure this problem as a role play.

Robustness: The student worksheet is easy to understand. I am concerned that the Web links may become obsolete in a year or two.

Activity Description: Good to say that this is not a debate. Be clear on how much time students should take for independent work. I like the idea of giving students starter Web sites. One question I always ask is, "What additional information is needed?"

Very interesting and engaging!


Share edittextuser=20875 post_id=23269 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=6919

I very much like what's here. I'll add my recurring bottom line idea that cuts across so many geoethics issues - we need to use less of the stuff that's causing harm. That can be given some more explicit attention to strengthen the activity.

In addition to the comments in discussion, here are some resources related to copper.

Other resources related to copper:
"The New Bronze Age" BY TIM HEFFERNAN

"Massive landslide at Utah copper mine generates wealth of geophysical data"
Kristine L. Pankow*, Jeffrey R. Moore, J. Mark Hale, Keith D. Koper, Tex Kubacki, Katherine M. Whidden, Michael K. McCarter
College of Mines and Earth Sciences, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA


Share edittextuser=16829 post_id=23272 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=6919

I suggest adding information on class management to the Description and Teaching Materials section, i.e. on day 1 students due this. For homework they do this and in the next class meeting we spend X minutes doing this. This will help a potential user see how much time is needed to complete the activity.

May want to include a piece on preplanning for recycling, by having modular construction, i.e. when things are discarded they can be easily broken apart and recycled.


Share edittextuser=8671 post_id=23275 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=6919

The geoethics forum provides a useful structure for engaging students with ethical issues across geoscience topics. The overall format helps students frame the issues but it's flexible enough to adapt to different levels (middle school, high school, college, etc).


Share edittextuser=4072 post_id=23278 initial_post_id=0 thread_id=6919

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