Elements of Social Justice
Danny Stock

What do the production of jet engines, the Macuxi people of Raposa Serra do Sol, Brazil, and the rate of Amazonia deforestation have in common? [answer below]

This year, the 8th graders developed a technical understanding and an awareness of the social impact on people and the planet for the first 87 elements in the periodic table. This profound innovation of an existing 8th grade chemistry unit on the study of elements has shifted to more closely align with GDS’s social justice mission.

Every day across the globe, elemental metals are mined, coal is burned, and forests are harvested. Contaminants leach into water sources, nitrous oxides escape into the atmosphere, ecosystems are decimated, and workers’ health is endangered—and their rights violated. And yet, at the same time, people are innovating more sustainable practices, constructing greener systems, and holding employers accountable for workers’ welfare. This evolution of the periodic elements unit helps students explore a broader understanding of each element that encompasses this global context. Engaging empathy as they learned the stories of the elements laid a much firmer foundation for future study than a more traditional study of atomic number, properties, known uses, and the history of discovery for each element. 

By the end of the project, students had produced a written scientific report, an intriguing teaser question, a visual presentation, and contributed to an interactive Google Earth map of key locations related to each element. At the link above, you can browse the globe and click on an element or location to fly in close and read a summary of the social justice-related story of an element. Following are some examples of what you’ll find: 

Interested in the story of hydrogen (1)? Hop over the Air Liquide processing plant outside Nantes, France and learn the importance of hydrogen in the transition to clean energy and reducing carbon emissions related to transportation. Anjali is your guide.

Curious about carbon (6)? Drop down on the De Beers Diamond Mine headquartered in Kimberley, South Africa. Did you know that 80% of diamonds are for industrial uses (not jewelry)? What do you know about the impact of war zone dynamics on diamond mine worker conditions? Parker will bring you up to speed.

So you want to know about sodium (11)? Sail over a McDonald's in Detroit, Michigan and read about salt (Sodium Chloride) in fast food restaurants, poverty, access to healthy food, and the disproportionate impact of diabetes and hypertension on African American communities. Zuri breaks it down for you.

Do you have any idea what praseodymium (59) is? No, you don’t. But Alexandra does, and she’ll take you through a study of rare earth element extraction as well as the devastation it has had on the people of the Bayan’obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia, China and elsewhere.

Think you know about solar energy? More efficient energy conversion rates are tantalizingly close and will likely lean on effective tantalum (73)-based semiconductors. Oliver takes you through the principles at a Tantalum Mining Corporation facility in Manitoba, Canada.

“It’s interesting to see how many elements have an impact beyond an environmental one,” Sabrina ’26 said after learning about the elements her classmates studied. She studied arsenic (33), which is contaminating groundwater in numerous developing countries, including Bangladesh. She described the issues proliferating onto health and socioeconomic issues.

Tatum ’26 added, “We see how many rare metals, for example, have had the same [negative] social justice impact. If we know they all have a similar impact on the same place, why haven’t we done something about it?”

“We learned that so many of the issues are serious and many of them didn’t have clear alternatives,” Andie ’26 said. They, and other classmates, raised the hope that the same intensive research dedicated to extraction, creation, and use of these elements could instead be dedicated to finding solutions.

Throughout the project, students developed research skills on digital databases, practiced scientific writing, learned proper citation of sources, and connected content knowledge with real-world problems. They shared their findings with classmates during oral presentations as well as on a large monitor displaying the Google Earth interactive gallery in the LMS’s fourth floor commons area.

Middle School Science teachers Michael Desautels, along withJon Vanegas, who is also the department chair, developed the improved unit supported by Middle School instructional coach Jana Rupp. Jana said, “One of the many highlights of my job is being a thought partner on projects like the 8th grade science project on the elements. When I met with Jon and Michael to plan, I had the opportunity to witness their thoughtful and creative process. Not only did they want to design a project that would teach the scientific facts about an element, but they also wanted students to make connections to the broader world. This multi-modal project ultimately engaged students in research methods with Lisa from the library, effective use of technology through Google slides, documents, and maps, and powerful communication in writing and oral presentations. By aligning the project rubric to the Next Generation Science Standards, Jon and Michael created an academically robust and comprehensive learning experience. The icing on the cake was when Michael helped students upload their summaries into Google Earth to create the interactive experience. You must check it out!”

And now, have you figured out the connection between jet engines, the Macuxi, and Amazonian deforestation? They are all impacted by the harvesting of Niobium (41).

  • Anti-Racism
  • Innovate and Create
  • Middle School
  • STEM