The High Cost of High Tech: Environmental and Human Costs of Metals

Carla Whittington, Highline Community College
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This module is intended for students in an entry-level Environmental Geology class. Students conduct independent research on metal and metal ores resources, including exploring the human and environmental costs of metal mining, consumption, disposal, and recycling. A series of worksheets, completed outside of class, guide students in examining their own use and consumption of metals, learn the true importance of metals in their lives, and the impact of resource consumption to the human community. Class discussion, based on student research findings, allows the instructor to highlight sustainable resource consumption and social injustice issues not normally addressed in geology classes.

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Learning Goals

The "big picture" learning goals this module addresses through class discussions are:

  • Metal resources are limited and geospatially rare.
  • Resource extraction, use, and disposal causes harm to the environment and can have negative impacts on the human community.
  • The negative impacts disproportionately affect poor people in developing nations.
  • Individual practices and proper resource management can have a positive impact on our quality of life.

Students completing this module should accomplish the following geoscience learning goals:
  • Observe and identify the metal resources used in their home.
  • Conduct Internet research on the metals used in popular electronic equipment and/or mobile devices, including what the metals are used for specifically.
  • Explain how a metal or metals are formed, extracted, processed, used, and disposed of.
  • Discuss the environmental, social and economic impacts tied to resource extraction, use, and disposal.
  • Synthesize information from a variety of sources: textbook, course content, websites, newspapers.

Context for Use

This activity was written for a class size between 24-28 and aimed at first or second year college students in an Environmental Geology course. It could be used in any geology or environmental course where natural resources are discussed.

Prior knowledge of mineral resources is not required. However, having some prior knowledge of mineral properties and mineral identification may be advantageous to student understanding of the material. In my environmental geology course, I precede these assignments with a lab on mineral properties and identification (typical of an introductory physical geology class). I also lecture on ore-forming processes and have a second lab on mineral ores where students can actually see some of the minerals they will be investigating in the assignments.

This module consists of four (4) worksheets where students explore different aspects of metal resources.. Each worksheet is an independent assignment. You can pick and chose which worksheets to assign depending on your focus or the amount of time you want students to spend on mineral resources..

Most of the work of these assignments is done outside of class with students (working individually or in groups) gathering the information needed. Students need access to the library and internet for their research. Class time for the assignments can be spent in class discussions and/or presentations by students or student-groups summarizing and sharing their research.

Description and Teaching Materials

Environmental Geology typically covers the formation of mineral and rock resources (lecture) and identification of mineral and rock resources (lab). This set of worksheets can be used to take the students a little further, relating the abstract concept of mineral formation to the products and goods they use everyday. I typically have used parts of these worksheets following a lab on minerals and mineral ores. Instructors can pick and chose which worksheets they are interested in.

Worksheet #1 - Initial Metal Investigation:
What Metals Do I Use at Home and On the Go!? (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Jul28 11)
This investigation asks students to make observations about the use of metals in their home. Students record where they notice metals and what the metals are (if they can identify them). Students also select two electronic and/or mobile devices (cell phone, iPod, laptop, etc.) they use regularly and do internet research to determine what metals are used in the manufacture of those devices.

Teaching Notes for Worksheet #1:
The information about metals in electronic devices does require a little searching on the internet, but is readily available at a number of websites. The list of metals students find depends on which electronic/mobile devices they research, but generally their lists should include metals in the Platinum Group, Transition Metals, and many Rare Earth Elements. This document may help: Common Metals in Electronic Devices (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 29kB Jul31 11)
This is a homework assignment done outside of class time. On the due date, it is helpful to spend about 15 minutes in class discussing the results. If you plan on using Worksheet #2 -- it sometimes helps to divide the metals into their elemental group (Platinum, REE, transition metals) and assign students the metals you want them to investigate for Worksheet #2.

Worksheet #2 - A Closer Look
Title: Learning About Metals and Metal Ores (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Jul28 11)
This investigation is designed for each student to have one metal or a group of metals to investigate. It could easily be adjusted for a group assignment where several students investigate a series of related metals. For the assigned metals, students research its physical properties, elemental abundance, the identity of mineral or mineral ores containing the metal,and information about the ore forming process (hydrothermal, disseminated, etc.). They also research where the ore is mined, how the metal is extracted and what its uses are, how much is mined each year, and the value of the metal on the commodity market.

Teaching Notes for Worksheet 2:
The assignment file has links to several sources of information on the internet that will help students. The information students are asked to find is readily available at these and other websites.

This is a homework assignment done outside of class time. OIn the due date, it is helpful to spend about 30 minutes of class time discussing the student results and allowing students to share the information they found out about the metal and/or metals they investigated.

Worksheet #3 - Environmental and Human Costs of Metals
Title:The Hidden Cost of Resource Consumption (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 32kB Aug3 11)
In this assignment students watch two short videos on "conflict minerals" and conduct internet research to answer some basic questions about what constitute a conflict mineral, where conflict areas are in the world, what happens there and if there is anything that any one person, company, or government can do about it. Students complete a series of questions in preparation for a class discussion.

Resources for Worksheet #3:
The introduction to the worksheet has links to several good internet web materials on conflict minerals, blood diamonds, and dirty metals. These include:

Two videos are also linked:
The videos can be shown in class or as part of the homework assignment. Students are asked to prepare responses to questions in preparation of an hour-long class discussion on the due date.

Worksheet #4 - Metals/Electronic Disposal and Recycling
Title: They Never Go Away: Metals and Electronic Waste (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 31kB Jul31 11)
This investigation requires that students explore what happens to electronic and the precious metals that they contain at the end of their useful life. Students must answer a series of questions about the value and amount of material recovered and/or disposed of and learn the environmental, human, and social impact of e-waste recycling. Students also view an 8 minute video, "The Story of Electronics" that examines the materials-stream for electronics and asks students to evaluate concepts like "designed for the dump" and the potential impact of product take-back laws. The goal is to get students thinking about their own consumption of resources.

Resources for Worksheet #4
This worksheet has links to many good sources where students can begin their research. These include:
This is a homework assignment done outside of class time. You should plan on leaving an hour of class time for group discussion of the material. Alternatively -- the video (8 minutes) can be shown in class and discussed.


As a homework assignment, each of the worksheets can be assigned points and graded separately. I use a rubric that assigns points based on the completeness and accuracy of the student's research as well as the quality of their written responses to questions.

Each of the worksheets leads to a class discussion. Students should be given points for participating in the small and large group discussion required by the instructor.