The Challenge of Teaching Sustainable Electronics to Elementary Students

This post was written by ISTC staff member Kirsten Walker.

When I first started at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) last year, it took me a while to wrap my head around all that is involved with sustainable electronics. As an environmental educator it quickly became clear that I had to figure out a way to translate this information and its environmental connections and concerns to learners of all ages. At first, I thought this material would not be appropriate for students younger than middle or high school because of the concepts behind circuits, conflict minerals, and toxic materials. I soon learned that I needed to alter my thinking and come up with ways to present this to an audience we meet with frequently–elementary students.

Two events helped me with my perspective on teaching in this area. The first was the Naturally Illinois Expo. Learners of all ages attend the Expo every year to see presentations by the scientists at the five Illinois Scientific Surveys (Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Archaeological SurveyIllinois State Water SurveyIllinois State Geological Survey, and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center). Many of the elementary schools from the East Central Illinois area attend the Expo to see science in action. After some initial observations, I realized that elementary school aged students understand the value behind precious metals (found in many electronics) and neurotoxins when the word is broken down and explained. Once students realize that there are precious metals and neurotoxins found in electronics, the importance and needs related to the environment, personal health, and recycling become very clear.

The second event was when Joy Scrogum and I were asked to teach a hands-on lesson for two hours about sustainable electronics to a group of mostly second grade girls. We felt a true test on the horizon. There were challenges and barriers  we had to overcome. First, there were a number of small and potentially hazardous parts to be found in something as simple as a cell phone, so displaying those parts was troublesome. We often carry around two keyboards to different outreach events. One is an older model that has a full circuit board and the other is a newer, lighter version with a plastic sheet circuit board (see below). Those visuals helped, but the older circuit board has sharp solder points, so it is not conducive to hands-on activities.

Circuit board of older keyboards.
Modern Keyboard
Lighter weight keyboard with plastic circuit.

It came down to a variety of approaches on the topic starting with a discussion of what would happen if they had lost their personal game devices. Since students felt an emotional attachment to their devices, the students were able to see their own value in making sure they take care of them. We presented a short video from a PBS show (Loops and Scoops) on the materials found in game devices and the problem with disposal of electronics. We briefly presented the number of miles it took for the parts of an electronic gadget  like a laptop or game device to be assembled and shipped to them. We talked about the solutions and problems associated with electronic items and the current landfill ban in Illinois. Finally, we presented them with some of the concepts that college students have submitted to our annual International Sustainable Electronics Competition . Then we challenged them to create a new electronic device out of old electronics that would otherwise be discarded. It took some time and collaboration, but then the ideas were flowing and the girls were excited to draw what they would invent with discarded electronics. One of my favorites was a device that could be hooked up to the carrier of one of the girl’s cats that would translate her “meows” to human speech. The girl thought it would be a great way to know what her cat wants and she could communicate to her cat in return. Genius.

A second grader’s idea on how to recreate a new electronic from other electronics.

The picture above was from girl who seemed to grasp the concept that everyone seems to lose the remote control but not their phones, so why not have your cell phone double as device to change the television channels?

Keyboard beads made from broken keyboards collected for recycling by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

We finished the class with an activity that required a lot of preparation on on our part. Keyboard keys can be made into personalized bracelets. It required removal of back posts and drilling holes to feed string through the keys, but they are always a big hit. The girls were particularly happy to see that we had created kits with the letters of their names and extra decorative beads for “bling.” Overall, we achieved our goal presenting sustainable electronics to students at a grade school level. I’m sure modifications will be made to improve the format of the day if we take another opportunity to present, but we feel the activities were appropriate and enjoyable.

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