Student Involvement: Museum Studies and Raising Awareness of the Impacts of Electronics

Karen Morrison, at her museum studies minor defense, May 10, 2013, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In addition to conducting and sponsoring research, the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI), works to integrate principles of sustainability into the curricula and educational experiences of engineers, industrial designers, computer scientists and others involved in the design, manufacture, consumption, and end-of-life management of electronic products. With its location on the UIUC campus, SEI is well positioned to work with the academic community to address electronic product life cycle issues and sustainability, as well as to involve students in such considerations via internships and research projects. The connections to discplines such as industrial design, materials science, and electrical or computer engineering are fairly obvious. But we like to point out that sustainable electronics can relate to virtually any field of study, especially when you consider how ubiquitous electronics have become in our society. We all use and benefit from electronics, and are all in some way part of the system related to electronic device production and consumption, which must be made more sustainable as part of the overall effort of making human existence more sustainable. So we need to all be part of considering and creating those sustainable solutions, regardless of factors such as our individual area of expertise. As a fine example of this, we had the pleasure of working with a student this past semester (Spring 2013) who was minoring in Museum Studies here at UIUC. “We” being me, Joy Scrogum, Co-coordinator for SEI, and ISTC’s Environmental Education Specialist, Kirsten Hope Walker. Karen developed an interactive display related to sustainable electronics for use in outreach activities. She was a chemistry major, so she was comfortable with science and translating scientific concepts to the general public, but she had no previous experience considering the sustainability of electronic devices. So it was great to watch as she worked her way methodically through the issues with our guidance, and considered how to present them, effectively learning the material and then figuring out how to teach it to others. Karen wrote the blog post below, describing her experience. We’re extremely proud of this intelligent, resourceful, and affable young woman, especially given her recent acceptance of a position with the California Council of Science and Technology in Sacramento. Congratulations, Karen!

Interdisciplinary is the new buzzword in academic circles. Being interdisciplinary is all about crossing boundaries and using techniques and notions that were designed or developed in one field to benefit or answer questions in another. Interdisciplinary is often used synonymously with progress, radical ideals, and breaking barriers, and many of the original melded areas (chemical biology or women’s studies) are today recognized as established disciplines in their own right.

By its very nature, sustainable electronics is an interdisciplinary field. The lifecycle of electronics – development, manufacture, sale, disposal or reuse – touches aspects of computer science, environmental law, operations research, sociology, human rights, and economics. The questions and problems in creating and empowering sustainable electronics are complex and cannot be addressed with simple answers.

One of the biggest challenges in sustainable electronics, then, is translating this complex problem to you and me (and the broader society we live in) and encouraging us to respond in some way.

This is where being interdisciplinary becomes helpful. Presenting material and then probing the public to engage and respond is one of the central tenants of modern museum studies. Although it is easy to think of the science museum where every panel is carefully constructed with simplistic information, or the art museum where visitors are visually stimulated and left to form their own conclusions, modern museums are aiming to do so much more. Museums exist in a unique sphere where people from different backgrounds and experiences can come to one location and engage with questions that are faced by our current society.

My goal in working with the ISTC Sustainable Electronics Initiative was to apply the theories and paradigms of content display used by museums to SEI. This involved four key steps: narrowing down the material, identifying the audience, creating display material, and revising the material iteratively.

In my initial discussions with Joy and Kirsten, we loved the idea of an interactive globe to show how the physical materials in a laptop move across the globe, from raw materials to the final product and sale. Logistically, however, this was difficult to execute in a reasonable amount of time. We also wanted material that was flexible and could be used for adult or school-age audiences.

With that in mind, I developed a scrolling presentation that identified the locations that laptop materials came from, the factories where parts were manufactured and assembled, the countries where laptops are sold, and where laptops move after their first use. Although this presentation met many of our content needs, it didn’t allow for people to engage directly with the material or choose what topics they wanted to learn more about. In essence, we were feeding information to people rather than engaging or provoking them to dive deeper on their own.

This realization pushed me to a web-based platform. Web 2.0 allows users to navigate through many layers of material at their own pace based on their personal interests (much like you’re doing with this post now!). Ultimately, this platform addresses many of the fundamental questions we wanted to originally address and will hopefully spur more discussion about the complicated questions faced in creating and maintaining sustainable electronics!

Check out the project:

–Karen Morrison

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