Educator Spotlight: Investigating the Stories Behind Smartphones

blue educator

Loris Chen, this week’s Educator of the Week, designed a unit that guides her eighth-grade students through an exploration of smartphones. Students follow the product life cycle from beginning to end, discovering what raw materials are used, how they are sourced, and how sustainable they are. The project culminates with students producing videos to share their ideas for improving smartphone sustainability.

Loris Chen
Loris Chen teaches eighth-grade science and serves as middle school science facilitator at Eisenhower Middle School in Wyckoff, New Jersey. Photo by Paige Coppola

Tell us about the smartphone unit you developed for your students. What does it involve?

Students explore the product life cycle of the smartphone, from raw materials in a box of rocks to disposal of smartphone materials. Using tools such as Google Earth, students virtually visit remote locations where raw materials are sourced. They construct models and design investigations to discover the properties of refined materials and explain how those properties are used in smartphone technology. After evaluating the sustainability of smartphone materials, students collaborate to produce a documentary-style video focusing on improving smartphone sustainability by changing one aspect of the product life cycle.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.

What inspired you to create this unit?

By eighth grade, most of my students use a smartphone on a daily basis. However, very few students have ever considered the environmental, social, and economic impacts of smartphone technology. While participating in a Geosciences Information for Teachers workshop in 2015, I was inspired by the work of Britta Bookhagen from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, and later developed a first iteration of the unit with two other eighth-grade teachers.

Since then, the unit has been through many iterations. With support from a grant from the ASM International Foundation, I purchased smartphone raw materials to develop an exploration component aligned to NGSS Earth science standards. Through changing the timing of the unit, I have aligned it with social justice units in other classes and made a closer connection to elements as building blocks of synthetic materials.

Box of rocks
Students explored the properties of rocks that contain raw materials needed to make smartphone components. Photo by Paige Coppola

The National Geographic Learning Framework, which I encountered when beginning the National Geographic Educator Certification Program, provided the missing pieces and helped me reorganize the unit to develop a more cohesive, student-centered exploration that developed a sense of purpose for learning the science of smartphones within the context of sustainability. The framework also shifted assessment away from lab report, quizzes, and tests to application and explanation through storytelling.

graphene model
Students constructed a model of graphene to understand its conductivity and later researched its possible future uses in smartphones. Photo by Loris Chen

How did students react while using Google Earth to observe mining locations for smartphone materials?

I could tell when someone had discovered evidence of mining activity: the excitement level at the group table rose and students wanted to share a find with everyone. Students were surprised at the environmental impact that they observed. They used the geographic locations to search for stories about mining operations and shared videos, news stories, and data. Zooming in to ground level with Google Earth empowered students to connect the locations of mineral deposits with past or current geoscience processes and pose explanations based on visual evidence.

Students used Google Earth to explore the environmental impact of mining raw materials for smartphones. Image courtesy Loris Chen

How did you guide students through designing their own investigations into smartphones?

We usually began with an observation and progressed to developing questions that could be answered through an investigation. Groups needed to run their procedure by me, including safety precautions. If something needed refinement, I would ask questions or pantomime their directions so that they had a chance to revise procedures. Students requiring modifications were provided with more direct individualized instruction.

I was endlessly surprised by the variety of approaches that groups took to gathering evidence. The biggest lesson for students and for me was that sometimes there isn’t a “right answer.” Rather, based on the evidence, there can be better arguments than others, and sometimes there are errors in the evidence that require retesting.

Students constructed a touchscreen stylus with common items and used their observations to develop design criteria and constraints for new capacitive touchscreen materials. Photo by Stacey Linzenbold

Why did you feel it was important to integrate storytelling into science?

At first, students were uneasy about abandoning the usual forms of assessment, because by eighth grade they were masters of “memorize, test, and move on.” Storytelling created a purpose for what they were doing in class. Telling a story required students to think about the meaning of what they were learning and demonstrate understanding beyond memorization of facts. By constructing a story, students connected disciplinary core ideas in science with science and engineering practices, as well as crosscutting concepts. Storytelling gave students permission to observe like scientists, ask questions like scientists, explore like scientists, problem-solve like scientists, communicate like scientists, and design like engineers.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

blue nominateDo you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

One thought on “Educator Spotlight: Investigating the Stories Behind Smartphones

Leave a Reply