Gorillas, old cell phones, and hundreds of third graders. While at first glance, these three things might not have a lot in common, one Campus Sustainability Grant project is bringing all three together to engage the University of Georgia and Athens communities around an effort to consider how our actions have a wider impact beyond just us.

Caroline Jones, a Ph.D. student in psychology, and Carrie Siegmund, the director of instructional technology at Northeast Georgia RESA, are working with third-grade classes from around Athens to teach them about the link between recycling cell phones and helping gorilla populations in a project called Guardians of the Gorillas.

A Zoo Atlanta graphic explains the link between recycling cell phones and protecting gorillas.

Cell phones contain a metallic ore called coltan which is mined in the Congo. The mining process for coltan often includes the destruction of gorilla habitats and the hunting of gorillas for food. Also, conditions are poor for the miners themselves, as the industry is often militia-regulated, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation.

“Third graders are unique because they’re very curious, and they’re very passionate about this project." - Caroline Jones. 

Jones and Siegmund have created a project-based program to first educate the elementary schoolers all about gorillas, then inspire and empower them to take action to create a movement around recycling cell phones.

“The Guardians of the Gorillas started with the idea of empowering students to action,” Siegmund said. “I was at a session at Zoo Atlanta at a conference and they were showing the connection between gorillas and cell phones. I knew the students could help with that.”

Ozzie (Ozoum), the oldest male gorilla in the world, born in 1961.

Mija (Mijadala), two years old, is the youngest gorilla at Zoo Atlanta. Photos by Caroline Jones.

Jones conducts research on gorillas at Zoo Atlanta and first started teaching the third graders after she was contacted by Siegmund.

“Third graders are unique because they’re very curious, and they’re very passionate about this project,” Jones said. “When I go in, I play devil’s advocate, and I say ‘gorillas are in Africa and you’re here in Athens. If they’re dying over there, it’s not really affecting you, so why should we care about them?’ And they’re like ‘No! We need them!’”

During the education phase of the project, the students read a book about gorillas and create a replica of a gorilla habitat. The students create educational flyers and zines to share what they’ve learned about gorillas and how recycling cell phones can reduce the demand for coltan. Then, Siegmund said the students make the connection that right here in Athens, they can take actions to help gorillas that live across the globe.

An example of a gorilla habitat diorama created by third-grade students.

“It’s pretty cool when they make the connection that they are going to be able to help, instead of being just sad,” Siegmund said.

For the culminating event of the project, about 250 third graders will visit UGA’s campus at the end of March to share their knowledge with the UGA community. The students will work with a journalism professor to learn how to communicate their message of helping gorillas through cell phone donations to a wider audience, and then head out to interact with UGA students and faculty.

“They’re really excited and passionate about the choices that they make and what they should tell other people about the choices they’re making to protect our environment,” Jones said.

The Tate Student Center is hosting a donation box for old cell phones.

To support the students’ goal of collecting 500 cell phones, there is a donation box at Tate Student Center where anyone can drop off their old cell phones. In addition, the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials accepts cell phones all year round and is providing support for the guarding gorillas initiative.

If a third grader approaches you asking to chat about gorillas, here them out — they’re all experts on the topic now — and consider recycling your old cell phones.

Written by Jordan Meaker