Jillian Turner, BHP Teacher
Sydney, Australia

My students LOVE talking about aliens; whether they’re out there, what they might look like, and how we might communicate with them. We started off Lesson 10.3 with the Drake Equation activity to get my students thinking critically about the future and the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth. I love using the Drake Equation activity because it can be the catalyst for a moment of revelation for students who have never considered the implications of the sheer size of the Universe for finding alien life.


Europa Rising – Drake Equation by Kevin Gill. CC BY 2.0.

I begin the lesson by posting 10 statements about the future around the room (feel free to download the template I created). Students write their name on the statements they believe are likely true. The statements range from, “Human-induced climate change will cause the extinction of our species” to “Technologically-advanced aliens will colonize our planet (and we’ll all die).” We discuss the statements with the most positive reactions to draw out why students have arrived at their conclusions.

After this discussion, I break the class up into six groups and give them each a step in the Drake Equation (as outlined on the activity worksheet). They have two minutes to decide on their response as a group. We then run through the activity with each group reporting their decision while I write our estimated chance of finding alien life on the board.

The last time we did this activity, my class ended with a number less than one, indicating that we don’t believe we will find intelligent life on another planet. We used this to consider our initial ideas about the future and to discuss whether anyone had changed their mind about versions of the future involving intelligent life beyond Earth.

Teachers are discussing this post and activity in the BHP online teacher community. Join in with any questions or insight you have!

About the author: Jillian Turner has taught history for 10 years and BHP for 4 years at both public and private secondary (high) schools in Sydney, Australia. Her school year lasts 40 weeks and she teaches the year-long BHP course to about 30 students per year.


Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

What is our place within this vast Universe? How can we make the world a better place? These are two questions at the heart of Big History. Two activities that address these questions are Lesson 10.1’s Visions of the Future and Lesson 10.2’s The Future of Our Planet. They help students realize a current problem in the world might get worse if their generation doesn’t act to solve  it.


The setting Sun from the International Space Station. Credit: Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center. Public domain.

In the beginning of the course, students choose a current problem the world is facing and try to imagine what the consequences would be if this problem continued for another 25 years and then another 100 years. Then, at the end of the course, they attempt to find solutions to that problem. As students work in groups to help solve this problem, they brainstorm solutions and come up with a plan to either eliminate the issue altogether or curb the problem.

A big part of student formation  at our school is community service, with each student required to complete at least 20 hours per year. As I’m sure many schools have similar programs, this activity would fit well with organizing a service learning project for your students’ local community, the state, country, or the entire world.

Although students might begin to think that their place in the Universe is incredibly small when compared to the 13.8-billion-year history they’ve just studied, it is extremely important to teach them that they can make a difference. They can change the world for the better, and by coming up with a plan of action in this activity, perhaps they’ll be encouraged to follow through on their vision of the future.

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.


Ben Tomlisson, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

The idea for a history book club came to me a few years ago when I was teaching my AP Euro class and I used to assign a historical fiction reading list for extra credit that very few students actually read! We approached our school librarian, who connected us with a librarian specializing in young-adult fiction in the area, and between us we hammered out the logistics of a quarterly history book club.


Students participate in Mt. Si High School’s student book club. Photo courtesy Ben Tomlisson.

The idea is to target a particular age/grade each quarter. This quarter, we have our freshmen reading Sapiens, by Noah Harari. We had used some of this book in our Big History class last year and students were fascinated by the questions it raised, so we decided to use it for our book club. The books are acquired by our library service and we try to supplement using PTSA funding to top up this supply.


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari. Fair use.

At the first meeting of the book club, students produce the group’s rules and expectations for the discussions we’ll have. We limit the number of students to 20 per lunch session, and every Wednesday we meet, eat, and discuss the questions raised by our reading. Students are assigned a set reading for the week and they generate discussion questions for the following week (you can view examples of these in this post in the BHP online teacher community). The last week of the club, we have an “Ask the Expert” session, to which we invite a special guest speaker. It hasn’t been difficult to convince students to do more work. Yes, we do offer extra credit, but this is based on their participation in discussion rather than an extra assignment.

Students have been re-energized by the questions raised by their readings. I have one student who waits by my desk at the start of every period to ask questions—not about her grade (!) but about a quote from the book or an issue it raised. This is energizing for my own teaching and I’ve tried to adapt some of my lessons to these questions. We have students already asking what the next book will be. To determine what we’ll read next, we’ll use a list of age-appropriate materials from our library service and will get student feedback on what they want to read.

My advice for anyone trying this is to start small (limit the number of students), choose a book that you think will capture your students’ interests, and get help from other departments and your local library service.

Ben Tomlisson teaches Big History as a full-year ninth-grade elective at Mount Si High School, WA, where he has taught since 2005. Mr. Tomlisson hails from Manchester, England, and has taught in Japan. He loves that Big History provides the space where he and students can build relationships and ask meaningful questions.