Exploring E-Waste: Teaching Middle Schoolers to Care About the Battery Supply Chain

Exploring E-Waste: Teaching Middle Schoolers to Care About the Battery Supply Chain

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Tech Savvy Mama Guest Post:

Exploring E-Waste: Teaching Middle Schoolers to Care About the Battery Supply Chain

By Leticia Barr, Founder of TechSavvyMama.com

In today’s digital age, there’s always a desire to upgrade to the latest and greatest devices.

Tweens and teens always covet models that are faster, lighter, and have longer lasting batteries but probably haven’t ever thought about what really happens to their old phones, laptops, and tablets after they’re discarded.

The United Nations estimates that we produce 50 million tons of e-waste each year around the world. The 4,500 Eiffel Towers worth of e-waste mostly consists of mobile phones and their batteries. With the total amount of e-waste projected to double over the next 30 years, the issue of e-waste is a growing concern as we’re increasingly reliant on digital devices.

No generation is more attached to their phones than the current one. Teaching kids to be savvy consumers also means educating them about e-waste and how, where, and when we dispose of our devices.

The UL Xploralabs Extraction to E-Waste: The Lithium-Ion Battery Supply Chain provides middle school students the opportunity to explore this topic through a free, interactive educational module that tracks the journey of a mobile phone battery. It helps students understand concepts like the benefits and challenges of a global supply chain while learning about lithium-ion batteries.

Designed to be either self-paced or used in a group, the 5-part module teaches how e-waste relates to environmental and human health issues. Cross-curricular connections to science, engineering, and technology engage students in deciding what is acceptable risk as they consider innovative solutions.

Videos, interactive parts of the site, readings, and more allow tweens and teens to deepen their understanding to principles introduced in the module. Here’s a look at what your students will love, things to be sure to point out, and how to check for understanding in the different parts of the module.

Establishing Background Knowledge About Lithium-Ion Batteries

The module begins with an introduction to lithium-ion batteries and a historical look at mobile phones through the years. Text on the page provides background information about the first mobile phone developed in 1973 and context for improvements made to lithium-ion batteries over the years

Students Will Love: The interactive elements that provide a look back at the first cell phones. Middle schoolers will get a kick out of reading about the size, how short of a life the battery had, and how it took an eternity to charge. The interactive slider provides a helpful visual for students to compare the size of one of the first mobile phones to a current phone. Expect a lot of “whoa! Cell phones were THAT big when you were young!?!” declarations!

Scrolling down the page leads to additional information about lithium-ion batteries. The following resources within the module can be assigned as independent learning for middle schoolers:

  • A short video teaches how lithium-ion batteries work
  • An interactive map explains the many places lithium-ion batteries are used in our everyday lives
  • PDFs throughout provide age appropriate reading with more additional information about lithium-ion batteries.

Understanding Resource Extraction

The next part of the module teaches about the components inside a lithium-ion battery. The site features cobalt, copper, lithium, aluminum and carbon.

Students will Love: Each element has its own section that includes the name of the element, chemical symbol from the Periodic Table of Elements, information about the element and its role within a phone battery, plus a button to click to see where the mineral comes from.

Be Sure to Point Out:

  • The Student Notebook contains a Periodic Table of Elements. Share this resource as a way to connect the minerals in lithium-ion batteries with science curriculum.

Check for Understanding: The “Click to see where the mineral comes from” button contains a wealth of information for students. Here are a couple different strategies for using this to check for understanding:

  • Use the Student Notebook that accompanies this module to have students compare open pit mining and brine extraction mining methods through an independent short answer assignment
  • Place students in groups of 5 and have each one research a different mineral and answer the following questions:
    • What impacts on the land did you observe at the open pit mines over time?
    • What year did the changes increase?
    • What else was happening at that time?

Understanding Battery Production

Now that the raw materials have been extracted, what comes next? The next part of the module introduces middle schoolers to the supply chain as raw materials are transported around the globe to locations for further purification, refinement, chemical modification leading to where battery cells are manufactured.

Students Will Love:

  • Seeing chemistry at work through the gallery of video clips showing the mobile phone battery manufacturing process. The Student Notebook is a great companion for this part of the module thanks to written descriptions that students can refer to later.
  • Watching what happens when a pouch battery fails. They’ll have to click through the first two photos in the gallery to find the video!

Be Sure to Point Out:

  • White text on a blue background at the top of the module is easy to quickly scroll past so remind students that a battery is defined as one or more cells in an electrical circuit and a mobile battery is powered by a pouch cell. Pouch cells are discussed throughout the module.

Check for Understanding: The Teacher Overview of the Module features great questions to use in entrance or exit cards. Have students jot down answers to any of the following to quickly assess understanding for any reteaching that might need to be done:

  • Describe how a pouch cell battery is made
  • List the defects that can cause a short circuit
  • Share how they think defects can be problematic once the device gets in their hands.

 Understanding Transportation Issues

Using what students have learned about battery production and defects helps them understand challenges of shipping lithium-ion batteries. In this section of the supply chain, middle schoolers learn about challenges safety scientists, packaging and shipping companies, cargo carriers, and manufacturers face in getting devices with batteries in the hands of consumers.

Students Will Love:

  • Seeing the types of tests manufacturers perform to address the safety and performance of the batteries before transport. Five 30 second videos demonstrate rigorous safety tests. They’ll want to watch videos of the crush test, nail test, projectile test, and overcharge test over and over again!

Be Sure to Point Out:

  • The Mark of Safety student reading gives middle schoolers a real life look at STEM careers that correspond to learning in this module. This piece highlights Jesse Rodriguez, an engineering technician for UL, who gets to blow things up for a living! His job is to test batteries and cells to their breaking point to find out where flaws lurk in them. This reading could definitely motivate middle schoolers to think differently about engineering as a potential career!

 Check for Understanding: This part of the module focuses on helping students understand that lithium-ion batteries are considered dangerous goods on cargo and passenger planes. A quick journal entry, exit card, or discussion can help gauge student understanding of why shippers have to follow specific rules when shipping lithium-ion batteries.

Understanding Product Use

Each of the three billion phones in the world has a lifespan. This part of the module moves student learning from being focused on the mobile phone battery to parts being shipped to locations where phones are assembled, packaged, and transported to consumers.

Students Will Love:

  • Since every middle schooler has experienced the joy of getting something new, they’ll be able to identify with what it’s like to get a new phone and the heartbreak of breaking it. They’ll find it interesting to click around to read stats about the average lifespan of a phone.

Be Sure to Point Out:

  • There is a pull-out quote from Judy Jeervarajan, research director, Electrochemical Safety for Underwriters Laboratories, that highlights the importance of passion for your career. There is great potential to help students think about careers in engineering thanks to the learning throughout this module.

Check for Understanding:  Students may think that the supply chain ends with them but have them demonstrate their learning by answering any of the following questions found on page 15 of the Student Guide. The last question requires higher level thinking requiring them to synthesize learning about the supply chain with personal experience from getting a new phone.

 Understanding E-Waste and Disposal

What happens to batteries and our devices when we no longer use them? This part of the module teaches students about the growing problem of e-waste and the environmental consequences that affect humans around the globe.

Students Will Love:

  • The animated graphic of the Eiffel Tower is a powerful visual showing exactly how much e-waste is produced each year

Be Sure to Point Out:

  • Interactive photos featuring hot spots highlight the environmental impact and health risks of e-waste in countries like China, Ghana, Thailand, Nigeria, and even the United States. It’s worth clicking on every blinking red dot to fully understand this problem as in order to be able to devise solutions.
  • Written materials in the Student Guide should be use as a companion for this part of the module since it reinforces the long-term health and environmental impacts of e-waste.

Check for Understanding: Learning can be used to rank parts of the supply chain that need the most immediate attention. Combine lessons from this interactive module with learning from the videos in the Solutions section to let students come up with ways to solve the problem of e-waste.

By using the Extraction to E-Waste: The Lithium-Ion Battery Supply Chain as part of your middle school curriculum, students will be engaged in learning about the topic of e-waste thanks to interactive elements that teach them about the life cycle of devices that are part of their everyday lives.