August 2011

Student Life

From cookies to the Congo

By Ryan Cunningham

How to talk to different age groups about mining and metals

 Talking to students about mining

McGill University undergraduate students supervise St-Lambert elementary students as they extract their chocolate chip “ore” from the cookie “deposits” | Courtesy of Ryan Cunningham

As part of its outreach program, members of McGill’s Materials Engineering CIM Student Chapter visit elementary and high schools to teach students about how metals are extracted from the ground and end up in everyday products.

Our motivation for starting such a program, which is kindly sponsored by Met-Chem Canada, is to educate and spark an interest in the younger generation that may fill future job opportunities in the metals extraction industry. While the industry may not have the most “glamorous” image, it offers strong career paths with numerous advantages, which are unbeknownst to most. Many of our own chapter members say the extractive industry was not their initial choice for a career, but they shifted paths upon discovering this exciting sector.

One of the benefits of participating in the outreach program is the opportunity to improve the way we communicate information about the industry to different audiences. By dispelling some of the negative perceptions about the sector, the image of our industry will become more personable and accessible.

Know your audience

Tailoring your message to the age of your audience is crucial to reaching them and making an impact. For example, elementary school children are naturally curious, have boundless imagination and ask surprising questions, so you need to be ready to field all sorts of inquiries and keep the presentation fun for the students.

One time, after talking about where metals come from, a young boy asked when we were going to start mining the moon. From there, questions came at us about mining the bottom of the ocean. At the elementary school level, rocks are “cool” and dressing up in coveralls and a hard hat makes presentations more entertaining. Also, breaking out bags of chocolate chip cookies is always appreciated. The cookies are used to demonstrate the difference between ore (chocolate chips) and gangue (the rest of the cookie). The crumbs they make are their “environmental damage” and they are held responsible for their “tailings.”

The key to talking to younger students is making sure that they have a good time, which will generate long-lasting positive, memories of the industry.

High school students, however, are a much different audience. They are concerned with the social and environmental responsibilities of international mining companies and are beginning to ask tough questions. Being aware of, and troubled by, “blood minerals” from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some mining interests are controlled by corrupt militia groups, they want to know what the connection is between these elements and the Canadian metals extraction industry. They are also concerned about the environmental repercussions of open pit mining and its effect on wilderness areas. Informing these older students about things like the measure in our legislature that safeguards the environment usually comes as a complete surprise.

It is vital to recognize and directly address students’ concerns. Today’s generation of high school students have grown up with the Internet, and their access to information is astonishing. They are active learners who are quick to recognize faulty logic or weak explanations. Be honest with your facts and humble with the limits of your experience and knowledge.

Challenge students with their very own questions. For example, if they are concerned with large companies treating the local and/or indigenous populations fairly, invite them to search for equitable solutions that add value for both parties. If they are concerned with environmental impacts, challenge them to find improved methods of mining, processing, reclamation, etc. If they are concerned about metals ending up in landfills, challenge them to create better designs in future products.

High school students need to know what their options are and that a range of different skillsets are needed in the industry. They must be shown that there are positions and niches for them in the industry, even if they do not have “technical” skills.” It is our responsibility to transform the audience from “outside” critics to active participants – educating today’s youth is key to making this happen.

Ryan Cunningham is currently pursuing his doctorate in mineral processing at McGill University and works part time as a junior process engineer at Met-Chem Canada.

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