Michael Berks, BHP Teacher, Missouri, USA
Tom Manning, BHP Teacher, Missouri USA

Father Emmanuel Carreira at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo in 2005

Credit: Father Emmanuel Carreira at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo in 2005 © Tony Gentile / Reuters / Corbis

In October of 2014, Pope Francis told the audience at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that the Big Bang theory and evolution are real. When the news hit the wire, the BHP Yammer community lit up with excited discourse about progress and plans to discuss in class. Based on the ongoing discussion still alive on Yammer, I think we can all agree this is a hot topic from a Big History perspective.

We teach Big History Project to 9th grade students at Bishop DuBourg High School. It was an exciting announcement, but maybe more so if you’re NOT teaching in a Catholic school like ours.

The funny thing is, the Church and Big History are not at odds when it comes to the Big Bang or evolution, even prior to October 2014. The Church has affirmed the science behind the Big Bang and evolution since 1950 with Pope Pius XII. In fact, it was Catholic Priest, George Lemaitre, who originally proposed the Big Bang Theory. Perhaps Pope Francis was able to put it in more interesting terms with the statement “God is not a magician with a magic wand.” And to many Catholics, his stance is not controversial.

We put the perceived conflict between religion and science on the table for discussion early in our Big History journey—in a way that reflects the Big History narrative. Introducing Threshold 0: The God Factor.

At Threshold 0, students are assigned an essay paper based on two driving questions:

  1. Is the Catholic Church and Science always at war?
  2. Does Big History conflict with Church teachings?

Research topics include:

  • Evolution and the Church (Creation)
  • The Big Bang and the Church
  • Church and Science
  • Galileo and the Church

You can download the full activity here. For this activity, the website allows students to search tagged papal documents and research the Church’s current or past stance on any topic. Many students are surprised by what they find out. It allows them to work out any preconceived notions about what they should believe or what they’ve heard the news media relay on the topic. Finally, it allows students to approach the issue objectively, so they’re open to engage with the lessons and learnings ahead.

We also Skype with the Vatican Observatory (one of our alums is a Jesuit Brother who is the curator of the meteorite collection with the observatory). This gives the students the ability to ask religious, scientific, or just plain fun questions.

The interview really brings it down to earth for them. For some reason people believe that science and religion cannot coexist. I think in our Big History class we show that it is possible. Science explains the how and religion explains the why.


Bob Bain
Big Historian


New Orleans, Louisiana montage” by Infrogmation (talk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Have you ever found yourself explaining your passions and enthusiasms to other people? Well, I have.

Indeed, over the last five years I have explained my excitement about big history and the Big History Project to different audiences in multiple venues, literally across the globe. I have talked to teachers, administrators, parents, students, historians, scientists, and the public at large at conferences and workshops, in classrooms and offices, on the radio, the internet and over the phone, and through newspaper articles and publications.

I’m about to give another talk at the National Council for the Social Studies on Friday November 13, and thought I could take a few minutes to rehearse with you, my fellow BHP friends.

So why big history?

In 1991 David Christian explained that “big history” was “the exploration of the past on all these different scales, up to the scale of the universe itself.” Thirteen years later he explained this intellectual journey “persuaded us that beneath the awesome diversity and complexity of modern knowledge, there is an underlying unity and coherence . . . an astonishing power to any story that attempts to grasp reality whole.”

In those few sentences, David both explains what makes his history “big” and why it is an important and necessary intellectual project. Certainly the almost six million viewers of David’s TED talk offers evidence for the “astonishing power” of this story.

As a teacher in public schools for over forty years, twenty-six of them in a public high school, I think big history’s effort to help students make meaning of the fragments and pieces of the “stuff” they encounter in their schools and daily lives is critical. David’s compelling origin story is generative since it can help students make connections among and between other stories vying for their attention.

However, despite its elegance and coherence, or likely because of its elegance and coherence, for students and teachers this story alone is not enough. If it were, then David’s TED talk or his video lectures would be sufficient for our students.

What makes the Big History Project so important is the value it has added to make big history so accessible and effective for students in so many different schools.

So, why the Big History Project?

Teachers understand that no story, even a story well told, is automatically accessible to students. Nor can a story, even a compelling one, automatically help students deepen their thinking, enhance their reading and writing skills, challenge their misconceptions, entice them to become active learners, help them build connections across content, or develop their capacity to become critical consumers of knowledge. Nor can any story automatically support teachers in achieving such goals for their students.

BHP was created to grapple with these instructional questions. And BHP’s design partners—teachers actively teaching, refining and sharing their teaching—have made a self-improving curriculum to effectively manage each of those challenges.

Simply put, BHP goes beyond helping students learn a big history narrative. It provides students the opportunities to actually do big history. It invites them to join into the intellectual work of asking big and important questions, seeking out evidence to analyze and evaluate, and then apply historical and scientific concepts to develop their own narratives, arguments and explanations. And BHP, through its active community of teachers and scholars, provides teachers with the resources, activities, and support needed to fit the curriculum to their specific context.

Over a very short time, BHP has demonstrated its ability to help enhance adolescent literacy, keep learners engaged, support under-resourced schools, and provide effective, just-in-time professional development. I do not have enough space to list all the ways BHP has accomplished this, though the investigations, lexile-leveled texts, consistent instructional routines, and a vibrant and dynamic community of teachers focused on student learning are among the most important.

The main reason I am so enthusiastic about BHP is the improvements we are seeing in students’ writing and the praise and criticism we are getting from teachers—criticism that enables BHP to continue to improve.

And, why now?

As a historian, I have some ideas to explain why at this moment in time large scale projects like big history and BHP are becoming so popular but you will have to wait for another blog post.

Or, come to my session at NCSS 2015 in New Orleans, Why Big History? Why Now? The Case for Adding a “Big” Picture and Literacy Practices to History, Friday November 13 at 3:20 p.m. in the Ernest N. Memorial Convention Center Room 211.

Also look for the Big History Project team, fellow teachers, free posters and more at Booth 805 in the exhibit hall. Can’t make it? Keep your eye on and follow us on Twitter (@BigHistoryPro) for live posts from the conference.


Bill Holeman
Chemistry, Integrated Science and BHP Teacher, Illinois, USA


Oblique View of Warm Season Flows in Newton Crater” by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.

Wait, there’s liquid water on Mars! This past month NASA confirmed evidence that liquid water flows on Mars. NASA confirmed the evidence of liquid water on recurring slope lineae (RSL). The hydrated salts seem to be in abundance on Mars and would lower the freezing point of liquid water, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening. Here’s a short NASA video that explains the findings.

I teach Chemistry to 11th graders and Integrated Science to 9th graders and have been using the Big History Project as a springboard of ideas to better instruct my students. However, I do teach the Big History Project as a capstone Science elective to 11th and 12th graders to provide a more personal connection between the students, their world, and the science facts presented to them. As a capstone elective my students come into the course interested in the natural world around them. Below is a quick lesson plan that starts with the discovery of water on Mars, examines the importance of water through the BHP narrative, and ends with a discussion of how life emerged on earth.

As my class entered Unit 5 and started the discussion on threshold 5, I posited the following statements.

  • Finally, we have evidence that chemistry is taking place of the surface of Mars.
  • If we follow the water through the Big History Project we see the emergence of life, and so if we follow the discoveries of liquid water in our solar system we will get closer to the ultimate question: How did life begin?

I had the students look over the content learned thus far and make connections between water and the narrative. As my students were looking at all of the places where water came up in the Big History story, we discussed water’s importance in each instance. Ultimately our conversation reached the goldilocks conditions on Earth that allowed for the appearance of life. At the center of the story stood water as the underlining molecule.

I passed out the article titled Life’s Beginnings, studying how life bloomed on Earth—and might emerge elsewhere. As we read over the article, I instructed the students keep water in mind, and to think about how water could be used to tackle the issues from the different fields of science. My students were able to draw connections between the earlier units, and saw that water carried the conversation into Unit 5 to the ultimate unknown in science, how did life emerge on Earth!

I would strongly encourage discussing the progression with your students. The Big History narrative could break this ultimate unknown question in science, and who knows if our collective learning of great thinkers is what it takes!

Below are some resources on the discovery of water on Mars to share with your students.