SKYPING WITH THE VATICAN: BIG HISTORY, FAITH, ALIENS, MULTIVERSES, AND BEYOND

Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

U2_Vatican-Observatory-Editorial-Article_2014_1330L

Using the telescope at the Vatican Observatory © Tony Gentile/Reuters/Corbis

As teachers, we all know that technology can be both a blessing and curse, which is why when we organize a Skype session with someone, especially someone important, we hold our breath, cross our fingers, and say a little prayer that it all goes well. This was my experience last fall (which I hope to repeat again this year) when I was fortunate enough to coordinate a Skype session with Brother Robert Macke, Keeper of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. I teach Big History at an all-girls Catholic high school in Louisiana, and every year, my students are extremely interested in and often confused about how they, as Catholics, could believe in the Big Bang and evolution. They’ve also had a lot of questions about how creation— as explained in Genesis—fits together with evolutionary science fit. I addressed some of these issues in a previous blog post about Big History, faith, and science in September 2014.

When you’re planning to Skype or FaceTime with an expert, you definitely want to make sure that all of the technical aspects of the session are glitch-free on your end. I coordinated with the tech department at our school to make sure that we would have a reliable connection, and that everything worked smoothly, from establishing a connection to making a call that everyone would be able to hear, with video we would all be able to see. To help ensure a great session, I suggest you test your call with the person with whom you’ll be talking. This will give you the opportunity to work out any kinks in their set-up as well as yours.

Technical issues aside, the experience was unforgettable for myself and all the students who attended. In preparation for speaking with Brother Macke, all BHP and theology students wrote two to three questions that they would like answered regarding the topic of faith and science. These questions ranged from how the Catholic Church views the prospect of alien life in the Universe to the location of heaven and how likely it is that there are multiverses. Students were treated to an introductory video made by Brother Macke about the history of the Vatican Observatory, after which we initiated the Skype call and students began asking their questions.

I was amazed at the questions that were asked, the level of which indicated that many students had contemplated these topics and put a lot of thought into their queries. The question we opened with was a wonderful way to begin: “My granddad thinks aliens could be the devil…what do you think?” Other questions included: “Do you think that there could be other intelligent life forms that believe in God (the same God as ours)?” “Have you ever questioned your faith as you studied science?” “How does science help with our understanding of the creation story?” “Would heaven be somewhere above the Universe?”

In answering these questions, Brother Macke was patient, personable, and extremely knowledgeable. The students walked away with a better appreciation of the compatibility of faith and science but also left with more questions, which is obviously one of the core goals of Big History.

About the author: Bridgette has been teaching BHP as a semester-long history course since 2012. She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.

BHP Must-Haves

BHP Team

Reflection and revision: we love it. And Big History teachers are all about it! This conversation from the BHP Online Teacher Community caught our attention. It starts with one teacher posing the question:

yammer-convo0

What are your essentials, that without them, it’s just not BHP (concepts, lessons, activities, habits of mind, etc.)? What kinds of skills and habits do you want to guarantee that students walk out of your classroom with?

We think this is an especially important point to consider, as there’s no way you can cover everything in the BHP curriculum in a school calendar year. By zooming out and focusing on the big picture (and the essential skills and concepts reinforced throughout the course), you’re in for a sweeter ride.

Scroll down to read what these BHP teachers have to say, and then join in with your own thoughts!

yammer-convo1

WONDERING WHAT TO DO IN THE FIRST UNIT OF BHP?

BHP Team

Teaching Big History this year? Thinking about doing so in the future? The online BHP Teacher Community is great to lean on. Recently, we spotted one teacher asking another for advice on prepping for the first few units. Follow their conversation below, and then join in with ideas or questions of your own!

yammer-convo

Casey Lever:

Hi David. I am just about to launch into BHP again in a couple of weeks. I’m on a different timeline to you – here in Australia. Do you have any recommendations for something hands-on in the first unit or two which the kids will enjoy?

Dave Burzillo:

Casey, I have always found Unit 1 to be very challenging. Students need to understand the key themes and skills presented in the unit, so I know I have to spend time on them. But students also want to get to the story–that’s why they are interested in the course–and the time spent on themes and skills delays the start of that story. I honestly think I have gotten better at balancing these two needs, but I have definitely not found the perfect solution yet. I am not sure that I have any great ideas for you, but here are some of the hands-on things I do early in the course, most of which come from the website:

1. I like to print out plain cards listing the thresholds–and sometimes additional historical events as well– and, before we have talked about thresholds or the key points in the course or students have watched David Christian’s video (in Lesson1 .0), I ask students to work in groups to arrange the thresholds in order. This is aimed at getting at what they know about the history of the Universe at the outset of the class. It always leads to an interesting discussion. Within the first few weeks of the start of the year, parents come to 15-minute classes. I often use this activity with them as well.

2. I really like to do the Easter Island Mystery and Headless Romans (History as Mystery) activities early in the course. The Headless Romans activity is a great illustration of history but it also is a great illustration of interdisciplinarity, and this is primarily why I use it. I show more of the Headless Roman video than in the activity on the [BHP] website, and I give my students some of the graphs and written analysis from the reports written by the anthropologists interviewed in the video. I like my students to approach this story like it is a unit Investigation, where some of the “texts” are sections of the video we watch, and other “texts” are maps of York and excerpts from the reports on the excavation.

3. I love to take kids outside and do the Big History timeline on the football field. I have also had them do the size of the Solar System on our football field for variety’s sake. All students have phones, so I make sure everyone takes a picture of the threshold before them and the threshold after, and I collect these and post them on our course page. In Massachusetts, I can drive 14 or fewer kids in a van, and in years where I have had a smaller class, I sometimes do this variation: I have told my class that the Big Bang happened at our school, and “today” is a point three or four towns over. Students calculate the different thresholds on a highway near the school, and then we get in one of the school’s vans and “drive” the timeline. If it is a morning class, I bring donuts!

4. For coverage of the claims testers (which is the topic of Lesson 1.3), I give my students 10 statements about various things (weather, sports, etc..) and they need to identify the claim and the appropriate claim tester for the claim. From early on I have also had students look at examples of when claim testers can fail us. Chris Steussy and some of the NYC teachers shared these ideas in one of the early BHP summits. One example is a geometric proof that shows 1=2. (Lots of websites have this proof.) Another is the Monty Hall problem (there are many short videos on YouTube about this). This one is really fun. The premise is this: you are on a game show and can choose the prize behind door A, B, or C. You choose A. The game show host then eliminates C, so now the big prize is behind A or B. Do you change your choice to B or stick with your original choice, A? Intuition says stick with A, and most people say stick with it. But, logic shows clearly that if you change to B you will actually have a better chance of winning. The videos explain the logical process really clearly.

Dave Burzillo has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history in each class. He has 12-16 students in each class. Recently, Dave began offering an online BHP course in the summer.

Casey Lever teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of the Department of Humanities. This is her third year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long core history/science subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.