Activity Option 2.2 - Rare Earth Elements: Critical Elements of the Future
Upon completion of this segment, students should be able to:
- Identify mineral resources (REE) used in common electronic goods and clean energy technologies.
- Describe overall trends illustrated in REE production and value (price) graphs; identify changes in trends and/or anomalous features in the graphs; and explain trends, changes over time, and anomalies in terms of mine production, demand, recycling, changes in technology, regulation, and/or population growth.
- Apply geoscientific habits of mind to interpret the complex relationships among consumers, producers, regulating agencies, and the environment in a global context by means of concept maps.
- Examine their own consumer behavior and judge the impacts of this behavior on sustainability.
Context for Use
The activity is designed for introductory-level geology or environmental science courses, but potentially could be implemented in a social science or economics course. It is designed as an in-class, small-group, collaborative assignment involving supply, price, and production data for rare earth elements. Alternatively, it could be broken down into two parts: a pre-class homework activity where students complete the data-plotting exercise (Questions 1--3) outside of class, allowing more time for group discussion of Questions 4--6 during class.
The activities are designed for small-enrollment(20--30 student), lecture/discussion-based courses. However, the activities can be modified for large-enrollment lecture courses by replacing small-group discussions with Think-Pair-Share type activities. The entire activity can be completed within a 50-minute class period.
Description and Teaching Materials
This handout summarizes the necessary background information for the rare earth element (REE) activity. It is meant to be distributed to students before class so they can use it as needed for the in-class activity.
Background Material for Unit 2 REE, Word version. (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.3MB Oct2 14) and PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 1.4MB Oct2 14) Students can download these documents directly from the REE Student Materials page.
The instructor should hold a brief discussion of the Unit 2 concept map an an introduction to this unit.
This student handout provides the data, graphs, and questions for the in-class activity. An optional end-of-unit reflection question (Question 7) is included at the end (the same question as Question 3 of the potential assessment questions provided below). This question could also be used as a post-unit homework assignment instead.
Student Handout: Supply, Demand, and Price Relationships for REE in Word (Microsoft Word 276kB Oct2 14) and in PDF. (Acrobat (PDF) 449kB Oct2 14)
Teaching Notes and Tips
- The document below provides more in-depth information for the instructor about some of the current and potential uses of REEs in the fields of electronics and green energy. There is further information about some of the environmental impacts of REE mining and additional sources of information.
- Notes for Instructors in Word (Microsoft Word 458kB Oct2 14) and in PDF. (Acrobat (PDF) 395kB Oct2 14)
- It might be helpful, particularly to non-science majors, to briefly review some basic concepts such as atomic number, atomic mass, f-block elements, etc., before class.
- It seems to work well to use the overarching Unit 2 Concept Map as a whole group discussion, and help the students construct their REE concept maps step by step in their groups for the last question of the in-class activity. An instructor could ask the student groups to brainstorm some possible ways the current REE-demand imbalance could be balanced, and then collect answers from each group. This should happen as an end-of-class activity.
- An Example of an REE Concept Map in Word (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 65kB Oct2 14) and in PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 98kB Oct2 14). This is an example of a concept map for REE. Instructors should feel free to modify it as they see fit, depending on their course. Students can download this sample concept map directly from the REE Student Materials page.
Assessments and Learning Outcomes
The learning outcomes are addressed by the activity questions as listed below:
- Identify mineral resources (REE) used in common electronic goods and clean energy technologies: Activity Question 6; Potential Exam Questions 1 and 2.
- Describe overall trends illustrated in REE production and value (price) graphs; identify changes in trends and/or anomalous features in the graphs; and explain trends, changes over time, and anomalies in terms of mine production, demand, recycling, changes in technology, regulation, and/or population growth: Activity Questions 1 through 5; Potential Exam Questions 1 and 2.
- Apply geoscientific habits of mind to interpret the complex relationships among consumers, producers, regulating agencies, and the environment in a global context by means of concept maps: Activity Question 6; Potential Exam Question 2.
- Examine their own consumer behavior and judge the impacts of this behavior on sustainability: End-of-unit reflection 7; Potential Exam Question 3.
Possible Exam Questions
References and Resources
- USGS Mineral Commodity: Rare Earths
- All the links under the heading "Special Publications," including open-file reports and scientific reports, have been used in compiling the content for this activity. It might be worthwhile for instructors to check this website for updates to REE price and supply/demand information.
- Several graphs showing current and projected demand for REE were been obtained from the 2011 Critical Materials Strategy released by the Department of Energy (DOE).
- REE production and export quota data for China was obtained from the article https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2011/1042/of2011-1042.pdf by Pui-Kwan Tse, USGS Open File Report 2011-1042 (2011).
- The Statistics of the Rare Earths Industry by Mark Tyrer and John P. Sykes, Significance Magazine, 10, no. 2 (April 2013). http://www.significancemagazine.org/details/magazine/4705901/The-statistics-of-the-rare-earths-industry.html
- "The Use of Rare Earth-Based Materials in Low-Temperature Fuel Cells," by Ermete Antolini and Joelma Perez, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 36, no. 24 (December 2011): 15752--65.
- The National Geographic article The Secret Ingredients of Everything by Tim Folger (June 2011) touches on the environmental impacts of REE mining. This article could be used as an optional reading assignment to bridge this unit with the following unit, which covers mining and mining impacts.
- For a historical perspective of rare earth elements, accounts of their discoveries, naming, and uses, see: 1787--1987: Two Hundred Years of Rare Earths edited by K. A. Gschneidner Jr. and J. Capellen. Rare-earth Information Center, Institute of Physical Research and Technology, Iowa State University.
- As noted above, other useful resources are listed in the Notes for Instructors in Word (Microsoft Word 458kB Oct2 14) and in PDF. (Acrobat (PDF) 395kB Oct2 14)