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The elements and society: how we need them, where do they come from, and the societal and environmental impacts

This page is authored by Graham B. Baird, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, University Northern Colorado
University of Northern Colorado, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
Author Profile

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.


This page first made public: Jan 3, 2017

Summary

This activity requires students to use websites (e.g. Wikipedia) to gather information on the elements. This information is recorded into a communal spreadsheet and students consider where the elements are extracted from, how common/scare they are, their cost, and generally how they are used. Students then listen to freely available online radio segments and watch Youtube video that discuss mining in the third-world. Lastly, students participate in an in-class discussion covering what they learned, their reaction to what they learned, and how this is connected to their role in society and possible career choice.

Learning Goals

Goals for this activity are:
  • Learn where elements are extracted from (lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and/or biosphere)
  • Determine which elements are needed in today's society.
  • Gather information on and understand the relative commonality/scarcity of elements found in the lithosphere.
  • Gain an appreciation for the relative cost of obtaining some of these elements.
  • Gain an appreciation for the amount that some of these elements are needed in today's society.
  • Understand some of the environmental and societal issues associated with obtaining various elements.
During completion of the activity, students will find that most elements are extracted from the lithosphere, all elements are needed in today's society, how some elements are needed in great quantities, others less so, and the relative cost of the elements varies greatly as well. Students will also understand that there is significant societal and environmental issues associated with extracting various elements from the lithosphere and that everyone on the planet plays a role in these issues.

Context for Use

The activity was designed and implemented in an upper-level geology elective class focused on ore geology. However, the activity is suitable for a wide-range of classes from introductory level geology or environmental sciences classes to upper-level classes in these disciplines as well. Duration of the activity is dependent upon how regularly the assignments are given, and how much time is given for each assignment. It can be completed in about 1-3 weeks for a 3 day a week course that meets for 50 minutes each meeting. Basic knowledge regarding the earth, rocks and minerals, and unit conversion is needed. If utilized in a lower-level class, this activity should be implemented after such topics are covered. In upper-level classes, the activity can likely be covered very early in the course.

Description and Teaching Materials

The majority of activity was a series of three assignments. The first assignment (The elements and society, Homework I (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Nov24 16)) uses internet resources to where the elements are extracted from, how abundant the elements are, how the elements are used in society, the current price of the element, and how much the element is used on an annual basis. Each student completes a sub-set of elements on the periodic table, such that collectively, information for all naturally occurring elements is collected and students enter the information into a communal Google Documents spreadsheet. This assignment can be due 1 to 3 class periods after it is assigned.

In the second assignment (The elements and society, Homework II (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Nov24 16)) , the students analyze the communal spreadsheet and write out answers to questions covering: the number of elements that are extracted from the lithosphere, which elements are the highest priced, and which elements are scare or abundant in the lithosphere. This assignment can be due 1 to 3 class periods after it is assigned.

In the third assignment (The elements and society, Homework III – with answers (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Nov24 16)), students answer questions associated with freely available radio and video segments on the internet. Radio and video segments cover societal and environmental issues associated with mining (element extraction), particularly in the third-world. The questions cover basic content in the segments to ensure students watch and understand the segments. This assignment can be due 1 to 3 class periods after it is assigned.

The final part of this activity is centered on an in-class discussion. The in-class discussion (Class Discussion questions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Nov24 16))begins with a reiteration of what has been covered thus far in the homework and students are asked for their reaction. If the discussion slows and participation drops, various questions are posed to renew the conversation. The in-class discussion can be done 1 to 3 class periods after the previous assignments and can last approximately 25 to 50 minutes.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The activity is fairly straight-forward in regards to content, exact implementation of the activity can be easily modified to fit the needs of any specific course. Because the activity relies heavily on internet resources, these resources need to be fully vetted to ensure that the information is accurate enough for the purposes of any specific course, or if the resource is still available. If the radio and video segments are no-longer available, other complementary resources can be easily found.

In general, problems can arise with students not filling out the communal spreadsheet for the correct elements, or not filling out the spreadsheet with correct information (misplaced decimal, incorrect unit conversion, etc.), this leads to inaccurate results for the second homework, but this can be an opportunity for discussions regarding accuracy of information sources, the importance of double checking one's own work, and why these are important for scientists.

Assessment

Initially, the activity included a pre-assessment (pre-assessment questions with answers (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Nov24 16)) that prompts the students to think about their current knowledge regarding the elements and where they come from. The pre-assessment is done via a series of ungraded questions. The homework answers were assessed to ensure the vast majority of students obtained the required information covered in the homework. Short answer questions on midterm exams and the course final exam, for a correct answer, requires the students to demonstrate that they understand that element extraction from the lithosphere is required for society, and that this extraction produces a variety of social and environmental issues, generally exacerbated in the third-world.

For the final: Possible assessment test questions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB Nov24 16)

References and Resources

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