Normal permanent magnets (they kind you might stick onto your refrigerator or white board), are typically made of iron or iron rust and strontium powder. These magnets hold their magnetism, but are not particularly strong. The type of magnets VINS was interested in were made of rare earth elements. These rare metals (although not actually very rare in the earth’s crust) create very strong permanent magnets that usually have industrial uses. However, the mining and extraction of these metals can pose a number of environmental, political, and human threats. Among these are toxic by-products, the large amount of energy needed to mine and create the magnets, and labor conditions in the countries doing the mining and refining. In the end, we decided not to move forward with the purchase of a rare earth magnet.
Ethical dilemmas are abundant in science today and can be a very compelling topic for students. Often we as a society we accept what is easy; it is easy to throw away our old cell phones or computers without thinking of the consequences. It is easy to wear clothes without thinking about who actually made them. I believe this can be one of the goals of science education: to make students think a little deeper, a little more logically, and a little more critically. Science education can help students look at the details and see how a product, tool, or decision fits into the bigger picture of the world we live in. Often ethical issues are ones we might stay away from in the classroom because we don’t want to cause trouble or create conflict, but being able to research a viewpoint or topic, speak to the facts surrounding an issue, and being able to listen to other viewpoints are all invaluable skills that we can be teaching and modeling for our students.
I encourage you to ponder the ethics of situations with your students and engage in thoughtful conversations in your science classes. It will be important to set ground rules and teach appropriate debate and listening skills when diving into these sometimes touchy topics, but the impact on your students will be incalculable.