The Life of a Computer

This expedition transforms the way students see something they use and encounter in their everyday lives–computers. In the first case study, students focus on understanding the materials and processes used in manufacturing electronics, conducting laboratory exercises to learn about the chemical and physical properties of natural and synthetic materials used to make computers. This leads to an investigation of chemical reactions, during which students make polymers while learning about the properties of synthetic plastics. Finally, students etch their own circuit boards, and discuss safe ways to dispose of the hazardous waste they generate in the process.
Concurrently, in Social Studies, students broaden the conversation and gather information about the effects of the digital age on geographies around the globe, particularly the impact of exporting obsolete electronics to developing countries. Ranging from statistics about the number of internet users in China and Turkey, through the effects of battery recycling in Mexico, students collect and record information about how computers have had unforeseen and deadly consequences for people around the globe. In the process, they sharpen their research skills and become more conscientious technology users.

In the second case study, students synthesize their learning and translate their understanding of the computer manufacturing process into a graphic creative nonfiction narrative. Before beginning the writing, design, and illustration process, the class collaborates to create a sequence and storyboard. An expert comic book artists teaches students about the mechanics of comic book design and formatting. Students then get to work with ink pens and artist-quality grayscale markers to create their pages. The final product is designed to teach young audiences about the life cycle of a computer and to advocate for responsible and safe ways to dispose of the devices we often thoughtlessly discard.

Grade Level: 7
Subjects: Physical Science, Social Studies, ELA, Visual Art

What are the physical and chemical processes used in manufacturing and operating personal electronics?
What are the social and environmental impacts of modern electronics consumption?


Visiting cartoon artist Rachel Maguire gives students a tutorial on the grammar of comics.


Students use ink pens and bristol to illustrate their page of the school comic book.

The first case studying our expedition focuses on physical science and the properties of materials.  Students are engaged here in testing the chemical and physical properties of a variety of different materials.


After learning about the differences between natural and synthetic substances, students participated in a lab where they learned about polymer synthesis and made plastic.




After learning about chemical and physical properties of materials, students learned about chemical reactions as they etched small circuit boards.  They learned about the environmental hazards associated with creating circuit boards, creating graphs like the one above.  Students were then able to test the conductivity of their circuit boards.

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