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Interdisciplinary Gamified Teaching of Critical Metals

Updated: May 9, 2023

Maxwell H. Furigay (a), Nikhil S. Chellam (b), Marta Guron (a), Juno Johnson (c), Sarah Bennett (c), Leighton O. Jones (b), Wenqi Liu (b), George C. Schatz (b), Eric J. Schelter (a), J. Fraser Stoddart (b), Shane S. Galley (c), and Jenifer C. Shafer (c)

(a) P. Roy and Diana T. Vagelos Laboratories, Department of Chemistry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, United States

(b) Department of Chemistry, Northwestern University, Evanston, Il, 60208, United States

(c) Department of Chemistry, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, 80401, United States

Key Statement: Introducing systems involved in sourcing critical metals needed for technology using bingo and mining flash cards can engage science, geography, and economics classes alike.

Keywords: Mining, critical metals, systems thinking, gamification, interdisciplinary

Photo by Erik Mclean on unsplash


Critical elements, such as copper, tin, chromium, and nickel, are difficult to procure and/or difficult to substitute with other materials. The public’s understanding of the origin of these elements commonly comes from news reports on environmental disasters, editorials questioning the ethics of resource extraction, and concern about critical elements’ long-term viability in high-end technological products. As a result of ongoing efforts to move toward renewable resources, electric vehicles, and greener alternatives to our current technologies, critical elements are taking on increased importance. This makes discussion of how these elements are sourced relevant and important in a wide variety of courses, as students are now faced with decisions (e.g., purchasing goods, voting options) associated with critical metals sourcing and the long-term sustainability of these processes. The scientific needs of critical element production tie in with geopolitical considerations, providing a segue for conversations about social justice relative to marginalized peoples disproportionately affected by unsustainable practices. Finding fun and engaging methods for students to begin thinking about these ideas can help lay the foundation for future decision-making and engagement with these important issues.


Critical metals form the basis of electrification goals to reduce greenhouse gases, as well as economic, environmental, and socioeconomic concerns tied to consumption of modern electronics and transportation. In the classroom, this subject is typically discussed in only a handful of courses, although educational opportunities exist in many courses across a variety of disciplines. Such conversations will help students to overcome a personal detachment of everyday technologies from their constituent elemental components and how those elements are sourced. Discussions might include understanding mineral resource extraction and purification, as well as their environmental, social, and economic impacts. Finding ways to engage in these broad issues will allow students to connect their personal decision-making with the opportunities and challenges afforded by our dependence on critical metals. It will also help students connect seemingly unrelated courses, such as scientific phenomena with social issues, and will support holistic growth as informed citizens. Using a combination of systems thinking and gamification, we have developed two tools to help introduce these ideas to the classroom.

Mineral Scavenger Hunt

The first tool we developed employs gamification. Gamification is a technique that morphs learning and enjoyment with games and/or hands-on activities (Bayir et al., 2013). Chemical education has already embraced gamification through such diverse tools as board games (Montejo Bernardo et al., 2021), card games (Kavak, 2012), crossword puzzles (Cady, 2012), and sport-related games (Lee et al., 2016). The combination of new knowledge and a semi-competitive and adventuring atmosphere has the potential to engage learners of all types.

The Mineral Scavenger Hunt (MSH) was created to invite hands-on inquiry in a public museum, such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science or the Colorado School of Mines Museum of Earth Science (these provided source material for the featured cards), within a classroom rock collection, or using an online minerals gallery, such as the one found at the Online Mineral Museum . An example of an MSH bingo card is shown below, and a spreadsheet and template slide may be found at to randomly populate individual cards for a classroom.

“This bingo board has five categories: Region(R), Ore(O), Composition (C), Color(K), Shape(S) . . .

[serving as an inter- active scavenger hunt as a student adventures around a geology museum

or through a virtual display]. Each category is selected to help the student with basic knowledge

of identifying minerals. The student must write the name of the mineral that fits the prompt. Only

one mineral can be used on the board.”

The combination of a scavenger hunt and the familiar gameplay associated with bingo acts as an incentive for students to engage with and complete the assignment to learn more about the origins of these important resources. Incorporating museum-based activities through educational geology scavenger hunts allows for a tactile and visually stimulating learning experience, creating an environment that is more inclusive of different types of learners. Keep in mind that columns could be changed to correspond to the course you are teaching. For example, ethical extraction pertaining to labor, economics, international trade, or sociological impact are concepts that might be used in place of the shape of the elements.

Elemental Mining Cards (EMCs)

A second tool we developed pertains to systems thinking. Systems thinking has been a useful tool for developing curriculum in science to introduce creative, innovative topics to generate an unbounded learning environment (Hutchison, 2019). Systems thinking allows students to consider an item or process to consider how it interacts with systems tangential to it. With mining of critical elements as the main system, students are encouraged to consider how that process affects and is affected by politics, scientific discovery, environmental factors, and social justice considerations, as depicted in the System Oriented Concept Map Extension (SOCME) below.

Elemental Mining Cards (EMCs) provide a visual tool for students to learn and retain critical information about each critical element, specifically around geographical region of sourcing, uses and chemical makeup. These materials are available for free on the Center for Sustainable Separations of Metals (CSSM) website,, along with a short self-grading quiz. The materials are designed to develop critical thinking skills, as students must synthesize content from all the cards to answer the questions. The purpose of this resource is to act as a springboard for discussion, curriculum, and further assessments related to critical element mining and impacts on the globe associated with the sourcing of these materials. Teachers are also encouraged to print the cards out to use as educational materials around the classroom.

Conclusions and Outlook

Critical elements mining has far-reaching impacts that are not immediately obvious, such as societal, economic, industrial, and environmental considerations. Systems thinking for mining of critical elements offers a new approach for connecting these factors to decisions involved in everyday consumer consumption. The EMCs and MSH bingo cards aim to give educators tools to allow students to place critical elements into a daily context and to engage with a topic that is often overlooked in the traditional educational standards in the United States.


The authors acknowledge support from the Center for Sustainable Separations of Metals (CSSM), a National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI), grant number CHE-192570.

Discussion Questions

  1. Using mining of critical elements as an example, how could the tools presented here serve as an introduction into a course you are teaching?

  2. The sourcing of critical elements often generates pollution that disproportionately affects marginalized populations. How can students engage in making a difference through their personal consumption of products?

  3. What are some examples of topics in one subject that have a direct impact on topics that may be discussed in a different subject?


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About the Authors

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