MATERIALS, Hidden Costs: Mapping the Source and Costs of Raw Materials

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

1-2 hours


The products and services we use everyday are linked to a host of environmental and health impacts stemming from global and regional systems of production and consumption. They effect everything from water and air quality to climate change challenges near and far. Everything we purchase and use, from a pair of jeans to a new computer, begins with a raw material. The most common raw materials include substances like cotton, minerals, petroleum and wood. We harvest and transform these raw materials every day in quarries, off nearby coasts and in forests across many continents. Most of these raw materials are finite – meaning we only have a certain amount of these materials – making our use and conservation of these raw materials increasingly important. As equally important is the way in which we extract and use these raw materials, a process which has severe impacts on land, air and water resources.
Mapping and understanding how these connections play out in the real world helps designers create new and efficient ways of harvesting, distributing and manufacturing products and services that have less impact on our earth. When we know what something is made of and where it comes from, it allows us to create smarter and more sustainable systems to support this process. In this lesson, students will be introduced to the hidden world of the production-consumption cycle through the lenses of Geography, Science and Economics. Students will research the source of materials used in common products and the way in which they are harvested and used in manufacturing processes. Students will use design-thinking strategies to develop an alternative system that helps conserve resources while still driving innovation.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Level III (Grade 6-8)
Level III (Grade 6-8)
United States History
Level III (Grade 7-8)


• Students are expected to learn about the economics of resource scarcity and commodity. This lesson will connect aspects of geography, physical systems and real-world economics to environmental concerns.
• Students will learn about common raw materials and consumption/production cycles used in products/buildings in the U.S.
• Students will use design-thinking strategies to develop ways to minimize the impacts of raw material choice and location.
• Students will learn about sustainable material choices.


Investigate Abbott Miller’s FSC Certified Wood project in the Design for a Living World archive. How is the Forest Stewardship Council certifying its wood and how can this process benefit our environment?
Visit the Smithsonian’s resources on climate change to get ideas on how to introduce the concept in your classroom.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, 2010 National Design Triennial


Maps, rulers, poster paper, pencils, calculators


• Carbon Footprint - A measure of the amount of carbon dioxide produced by a person, organization or state in a given time
• Raw Material - An unprocessed natural resource
• The Production-Consumption Cycle – This is the series of steps and processes involved in taking a raw material like cotton or petroleum and manufacturing this into a product that is distributed to a consumer. The cycle has some basic steps including: resource extraction, production (manufacturing), distribution, consumption and disposal.


Introduction: The Production-Consumption Cycle (10 minutes – Review)
Begin the lesson by focusing on one common product students are familiar with. A pair of jeans, a pencil, a desk or backpack. Ask students what the object is made of.  After students respond with some materials, ask them where these materials come from.
Explain that every product starts with some kind of raw material, from cotton for jeans to plastics for computer consoles.  Most of the raw materials we use everyday are extracted from the earth through various processes including mining, drilling, logging, etc.
The whole process, however, from extracting the raw material like cotton or petroleum and manufacturing this into a product, is called the production-consumption cycle. The cycle has some basic steps including: resource extraction, production (manufacturing), distribution, consumption and disposal. Explain that many of the products we buy and use everyday in the United States are made in other countries and are a part of a global system of trade, resource extraction and, oftentimes, cheap labor.
Break down the cycle for students. Draw a straight line on the board with 5 points equally spaced along the line. Start to explain the series of steps involved in the cycle starting with extraction and ending with disposal:
1. Extraction – Raw materials like minerals, petroleum and water are extracted from the earth.
2. Production – These raw materials are transformed or manufactured into a product.
3. Distribution – This product is distributed to regional centers for individual store suppliers.
4. Consumption – These products finally make it to the shelf of stores that are in your strip malls.
5. Disposal – The average lifespan of stuff we buy at the store is about 10 minutes. Then we throw it away.
In this lesson we are focusing on the extraction step. If possible, find a map that can show geographically where major mineral and resource deposits are located. Compliment this with an ongoing Social Studies lesson about geography, physical systems and mapping.
To connect this back to students and their community, have each student choose one partner and have them “source” their outfits. Each student should look at the materials list found on their tags and identify where each item was made.
Environmental Impacts (10 minutes - Investigate Problem)
Next let’s consider some of the environmental impacts associated with the extraction process.
As a beginning research exercise, assign each student one of the following raw materials found in the chart below. Each student or team of students should consider the variables found in the matrix below.
Student Research Rubric:



Common Environmental Impacts

Common Health Impacts


Polymer strands that start as petroleum


The secondary xylem in the stems of trees


Steel is an alloy consisting mostly of iron, with a carbon content between 0.2% and 2.1% by weight


A metal that must be mined and refined for use in a variety of objects


A material made from melted silica, plastics or resin compounds


A metalloid material (neither metal or non-metal) used as a common semiconductor


Made from clay and fired in a kiln

Synthetic Rubber

A type of artificially made polymer material, which acts as an elastomer.


Cotton is a soft, staple fiber that grows in a form known as a boll around the seeds of the cotton plant

Some of the findings may touch on the following issues:
 Common Environmental Impacts: Land use issues; contamination; water quality degradation; air emissions; chemical leaching; habitat destruction; biodiversity decline
• Common Health Impacts: Food and water shortages due to contamination (dehydration and malnourishment); poor air quality – asthma, cancers, accumulation of toxins in the bloodstream; physiological or neurological issues; reproductive health
The extraction of raw materials is a prevalent health and environmental threat around the country. Some major extraction techniques include:
• Mineral Extraction - Quarries
• Off-Shore Drilling
• Strip Mining Operations
• Logging
Activity Extension: Making Connections
To connect students to environmental impacts associated with the extraction process cycle in their community, have students investigate something they use or wear every day like a back pack, the casing of a mobile phone or a pencil. Require each student to research their product and to report back with some simple criteria including the product's materials breakdown, estimates of the raw material's location, and estimated environmental concerns/impacts from the extraction of this material.
Each student should apply the following research methodology:
1. Choose a product you use at least once every day. (i.e. toothbrush, mobile phone, socks)
2. Find out what that product is made out of. (cotton, plastic, etc.)
3. Determine to the best of your ability the source or the origin of each of these raw materials. Where are they coming from? (i.e. Chile, Portugal, Japan)
4. Finally, consider some of the environmental impacts associated with extracting those raw materials. (i.e. What kinds of environmental impacts does the growth and use of cotton have on the region where it is being harvested?)
5. After each of these steps has been followed, reflect on the product you have chosen.


Material Components

Location of Raw Material

Environmental Concern/Impact


wood, graphite, rubber, aluminum

Wood is from Idaho, Rubber from Brazil, Graphite from Ohio, Aluminum from Ohio

Habitat destruction involved in logging, energy used to mine for graphite

For reference, some ways to measure the impacts from raw material extraction include:

• Land Footprint – this has to do with the impact on the physical landscape
• Runoff/Contamination – Many quarries or mining operations will create runoff of byproducts or water saturated with harmful heavy metals or extracted mineral. These runoff into nearby water supplies.
• Air Emissions – The operation of heavy machinery or mechanisms to break through the earth’s crust cause a great deal of air emissions from burning diesel and other fuels.
• Biodiversity/Habitat Destruction – The destruction of the land reduces biodiversity and habitats for local animals and ecosystems
• Carbon Footprint – The burning of fossil fuels contributes greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Local Concerns, Personal Reflections (5-10 minutes - Frame/reframe)
After this exercise, discuss with students solutions to some of the issues that raw material extraction has on the environment and our personal needs. Explain that designers are finding ways to use more eco-friendly materials and methods that reduce impact on the environment. Some of the principals that designers are using include:
• Keeping it Local – A big part of the problem with raw material extraction is location. Many mineral deposits are located in fragile ecosystems that need to be preserved, like the rainforest. Designers are trying to keep resource extraction local so they can monitor and certify safe ways of extracting the materials for their designs.
• Keeping it Natural – Another solution is to work with earth-friendly or renewable materials. These materials (like bamboo, cork) are biodegradable or can be grown in a sustainable manner and easily replaced.
• Innovative Design – Designers are also finding ways to reduce the amount of raw materials needed for their product. Reducing size and volume lessens the amount of raw materials needed for manufacture.
To connect students to real-world design innovations, reference a project from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum  2010 National Design Triennial:
• Carbon-negative Concrete - Cement is among the most polluting and energy-consuming industrial processes: for every ton of cement produced, nearly one ton of carbon dioxide is released. Yet concrete is also a highly durable and affordable material, and there is no viable alternative. To address this, Calera scientist Brent Constantz at Stanford University is developing a new process for producing cement, which captures, rather than releases, carbon dioxide into the air. Based on biomineralization, the process is similar to how corals make reefs using seawater minerals to form carbonates. Calera sends carbon dioxide emitted from existing power plants through seawater, effectively converting it into carbonate minerals, which can be used to manufacture cement replacement materials or aggregates.
Sustainable Materials Design Lab (20 minutes - Generate Solutions)
Now it's time for a design challenge! Divide students into design teams. Using an online tool called SourceMap, provide each with a design challenge scenario. The scenario challenges each team to source a common product they are familiar with or use often, like a notebook, backpack, mobile phone, etc.
Using a ruler, a physical map and the online tools provided through, each team must find out what their product is made of and begin to source some of the raw materials. Finally, the goal is to then estimate the potential eco-footprint created by the product they have been asked to analyze (calculations provided by If time permits, each team should come up with an idea to create an alternative design or production system that is more eco-friendly. (Edit and develop ideas)
The following table provides a guide with some examples to focus each team’s investigation:

Design Team




Chocolate Bar

Raw Materials: Cocoa, Sugar, Milk, Paper, Foil Eco-Impacts: Monocropping (bad farms), land use, runoff

Where: Mexico City



Raw Materials: Corn, Sugar, Aluminum Eco-Impacts: Air emissions from aluminum smelting, growing too much corn

Where: Atlanta, GA, United States


Wooden Table

Raw Materials: Wood, Polyurthane, Metal Screws Eco-Impacts: Deforestation

Where: Shanghai, China



Raw Materials: Plastics, Glass, Heavy Metals, Silicon Eco-Impacts: Toxic materials in soil/water, waste creation

Where: Moscow, Russia

After completing their Sourcemap and/or redesigns, teams should share their maps and ideas with the class. (Share and evaluate)
Activity Extension: Trash Diary
If time permits challenge students to create a daily diary/inventory log of the products they consume and buy during a week.
After completing the log, lead an activity that breaks down each product consumed into some basic raw materials such as
• Paper
• Metal
• Plastics
• Organic material
• Glass
• Electronics
• Other
Calculate the class percentages of raw materials consumed.  Which material was used most? Where do you think the material is coming from?


Reflection Questions
  • "What products do you purchase most often and what kinds of waste do these products produce?"
  • "Think of your favorite consumer good.  Perhaps it is a computer, MP3 player, shoe brand or a magazine.  What materials can you identify as used in the creation of this product?"
  • "Are there any factories or raw materials extraction sites near where you live?  What kinds of products or materials are made or found there?"

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • As a class, brainstorm the environmental and health impacts of different raw materials (plastics, wood, metal, glass, etc.), listing them on the board as a reference for the remainder of the lesson. Make a list of raw materials that are more local and sustainable as well.
  • Choose a product the students use regularly, like sneakers. Create a sourcemap for that product as a class, listing its raw materials, where each came from, and the environmental impacts of extraction for each raw material. Keep this sourcemap on the board as a reference for your students as well.
  • In design teams, students can redesign the same product with the intention of making it more eco-friendly and using more sustainable materials. Using a map, they can draw a new, more local sourcemap for the raw materials used in their design. They can draw sketches and build prototypes of their designs for a class presentation.
Differentiation for High School:
  • Students can conduct research on extraction methodologies and their environmental/health impacts by interviewing experts and scientists.
  • Students can research alternative, more sustainable raw materials and the companies/designers that incorporate these materials in their products. Through their purchasing power, consumers like your students can make an impact on which companies are successful and what products are popular. To create awareness of this issue in their local community, the class can create their own certification of sustainability webpage, listing products and companies that minimize environmental/health impacts in their products.  The class's research and certification webpage can be made available to other students in the school as well as family and friends.

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