From the Congo to Your Classroom: Conflict Metals Offer a Great Opportunity to Teach Kids About Technology and Social Responsibilty

Conflict metals. You might you’ve heard about them, but perhaps chose to ignore the issue, hoping that it will go away. After all, the thought that a whole village in Africa  was burned and its female population systematically raped to help make your cell phone is not just unpleasant, its down right revolting.  But what are we to do? What can anyone do about it short of giving up on the devices that fuel our economy and sustain our 21st century lifestyles?

The answer lies with education. What better issue to bridge the gap between our love of technology and social awareness than the issue of conflict metals?  To those to whom this is news, conflict metals is the term given to those minerals that are the bounty of bloody civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and their neighbors have been torn apart in recent years as militias and armed groups fight over the right to control access to precious mineral deposits and trade routes.  The metals in question, often called the three Ts ( Tin, Tantalum, and Tungsten) as well as gold, form part of an often bloody global supply chain that take these metals from African mines to factories in Asia and eventually to places like your neighborhood Best Buy and Apple store.

Students should and must be the ones who take on this challenge. And every technology-loving teacher and administrator must take the lead in helping their students understand the interconnectedness of our global society, as well as the conflicts that arise out of the inequalities in our world.

First, begin by sharing with your students the resources on the RAISE Hope for Congo campaign  Here they will find videos, slide shows and other multimedia content to explain the causes and severity of problem of conflict minerals. RAISE Hope for Congo, by the way, is a project of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank and advocacy group. To be clear, these materials are best suited for middle and high school students, and even beyond, and they are a great way to touch on standards ranging from Language Arts ( letter writing, reading ), global trade and economics, science (periodic table), and geography.

A link to some videos is here. Have students watch them and discuss them either with other students or at home. Many of them will have no clue. Some may not care, and some may pretend not to care, but there will by many who will connect with the issue and want to do something about it.

Share this PDF From Mine to Mobile Phone. If you are dealing with English Language Learners, then have students break into groups and jig-saw the article; or teach the lesson as a cause and effect, or sequence of events lesson, simplifying the material with the sidebar material.

Next they can write a business letter, which is a lesson in itself and send it in through this form telling business leaders that they pledge to buy only electronics and devices that are conflict free.  They can sharpen their persuasive letter skills, either in individual assignments, or as a whole-class guided writing activity, to convince CEOs of companies to get behind efforts to help make the process of certification more transparent and reliable.

Students can also look into the devices and phones they already own and see where their manufacturers stand in supporting conflict free minerals using these rankings.  They can also write the letters to those particular CEOs and official company spokespersons either  expressing disappointment with slow pace of action on the issue, or with encouragement for those companies that have done more than others.

Furthermore, students can pressure their own districts and administration to make better purchasing decisions. There are many campaigns geared to the college-level students to raise awareness on campus. Why couldn’t these work at the high school level, or even in middle school?

Finally, for a more in-depth, critical approach to the conflict mineral framing of the issue, see conflictminerals.org and Friends of the Congo.  The issue is incredibly complex, and after reading a few of these blog posts, it is evident that the issue demands more than just signing a petition, or supporting legislation that does not address the sovereignty rights of countries to export these minerals in a safe, and sustainable way. In other words, simply banning minerals from the Congo only benefits one mining interest against another, and does nothing to ensure the longevity and well-being of the residents of the conflict regions who demand that “the West” come up with better solutions than the recently passed Dodd-Frank bill that forces companies to disclose and audit the origins of materials that come from the Congo.

There might be some that find this sort of curriculum to cross the line into advocacy and even “indoctrination”. Surely these are valid critiques, but for those caught off-guard, consider these handy retorts:

1. Students need to be able to apply their communication skills to the real world.  Authentic context makes learning more meaningful.

2. Students need to know the origins and trajectories of the products they buy. Learning about supply chains and the effects of the global technology industry can only make them more informed global citizens.

3. Students are already being indoctrinated by powerful forces. Companies like Apple and Nintendo spend billions trying to convince them to act and spend for their benefit. Asking students to address these issues in the classroom is part of a balanced media literacy  and empowers them to make wiser decisions.

4. Nobody complains when the assignment is to write a letter to an author, or to a fictitious character of a novel. Why should there be a problem to writing a letter to a real-life mover and shaker like a Steve Jobs? Let him worry about it and put his PR people to work.

5. Students should also remember the full rE-cycle which also includes poor, Chinese workers working with harsh, toxic materials as well as harsh bosses.

6. Properly rE-cycle electronic waste.  Find out more information on http://conservationreport.com/2008/04/01/e-waste-for-bay-area-residents-recycling-e-waste-is-a-5-minute-drive/

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