KEEPING BHP ENGAGING THROUGH THE LONG HAUL

Chloe Simons
BHP Teacher, Tasmania

One of the reasons that this course is so powerful is its significant capacity to engage students. The story of the creation of the Universe and everything in it is a weird and wonderful tale with many twists, red herrings and surprises. If you get it right, teaching BHP to your students will be life changing for them.

Big History Project timeline

Big History Project timeline

A lot happens in 13.8 billion years (download PDF timeline, 18mb) and Big History is creatively sculpted to allow students to make sense of a huge range of information. Here are some thoughts on maximizing student engagement;

  • Don’t get overwhelmed or ‘bogged down’ by teaching lots of content—keep coming back to the narrative or the story of Big History. If you teach the skills of critical thinking, research and claim testing, students will be able to follow up on extra content that interests them outside of class time.
  • Take opportunities to pause and reflect on how the story of BHP relates back to the individual students themselves. Discuss the ‘lucky breaks’ for humans over the 13.8 billion years. For example, we can say how lucky we are that we have just the right amount of gravity in the universe for atoms to form, or how the big asteroid was unlucky for the dinosaurs but great for us. Making events relevant to how the students themselves came to be here can help keep them engaged in the story.
  • Vary your delivery of the course. The web site is engaging and visually interesting, with videos, text readings and infographics, but also make good use of the practical activities. I like to keep things dynamic—I wouldn’t spend a whole lesson doing text readers or watching movie clips—mix it up a bit and try to include many opportunities for students to engage in interactive or hands-on activities. I also encourage students to be as creative as possible when they demonstrate their understanding of concepts in BHP. Some examples could be:
    • Unit 3 Stars and elements: Get students to make up a “Guess my Element” game show to demonstrate their understanding of the chemical elements—make it as cheesy as possible!
    • Unit 5 Life: Write a diary from the point of view of a small mammal after the dinosaurs became extinct due to the asteroid. Explain how they had to adapt and survive and why this event was important for human evolution.
    • Unit 7 Agriculture and Civilization: Students create a ‘living museum’ where they dress up as people from different periods in time and explain and act out historically significant events.
    • Unit 10 The Future: Connecting globally—students connect with another school to investigate environmental or humanitarian issues.
    • All Thresholds: Students film a ‘mocumantary’ or short news report about a threshold moment as if it was a breaking story in the media.
      • Media posts: Students create weekly Big History tweet or blog post about an event that is important to them.
      • Create and Build: models of DNA using jelly snakes and marshmallows; use a 3D printer to re-create a historical artefact; use digital media to create students’ own infographics or a coding program like Scratch to create an animation of an historic event; build a model contrasting an ancient city and a modern city or use a 3D computer drawing program to design a ‘city of the future.’
  • Finally, model the joy of learning. It’s OK to tell your students that you don’t know the answers to all the questions—it would take hundreds of experts from all fields of knowledge to do this. Work through finding out answers to questions together with students and share their excitement at finding out new things.

LAUNCHING YOUR FIRST LITTLE BIG HISTORY: SOME TIPS

Bob Bain
Big Historian,
Professor of History & Educational Studies,
University of Michigan

lbh1

Example of student LBH: Wooly Mammoths

BHP Expert Post

I recently received an e-mail from a 9th grade BHP student asking me for some tips on doing her Little Big History. I thought I would share her note and my response.

She wrote:

Hello Mr. Bain, I am a student in the Big History course, and we were just given the rubric to the ‘little big history’ project for the year. So to get a head start, I was looking online at projects from past years. I was wondering if there were any tips or ideas or any advice at all you could possibly give me looking forward on this project?

And I responded:

Great question.  I think there are “big” steps in doing a “little” big history.

lbh2

Thresholds of Increasing Complexity

1.) Ask big questions at each threshold to guide your research:
All history begins with questions and the LBH project is no different. A good way to begin this project is to pose some research questions—questions you’re curious about—at each of David Christian’s Thresholds of Increasing Complexity. Let’s work through an example with a topic that is of interest to me, coffee. I start with the last threshold and work my way back.

  • Threshold 8 – Modern Revolution: Over the last 150 years, what were the most important changes in how coffee has been grown, distributed, and brewed?
  • Threshold 7 – Agriculture and the Agrarian Age: When did people first begin to grow coffee for consumption and distribution? How and why did this change from this beginning until 1800 or when the Modern Revolution began? How did humans around the world develop a taste for this bitter drink? When and why did it become most popular?

By the way, I give a short video explanation of just those changes in coffee at http://www.gatesnotes.com/Education/Bob-Bain-Big-History-of-Coffee

  • Threshold 6 – Collective Learning: How did humans share and expand their knowledge of coffee growing, its impact on humans, and ways to brew it over time, even if our earliest ancestors probably did not drink coffee?
  • Threshold 5 – Life: How did the coffee plant evolve? What explains why its bean is so bitter? Could the bitterness evolve over time as a survival trait? How does it affect humans and animals?
  • Threshold 4 – Formation of Solar System and Earth: Why does coffee grow well in the tropics and not well in places like Ann Arbor, where I live?  What kind of temperature and climate does the coffee plant need and why is that temperature and climate best found in the tropics? How did Earth’s formation impact coffee?
  • Threshold 3 – Elements: What are the chemical elements in coffee?  Where do they come from? How did these elements get into the coffee bean?

Now at both Threshold 2 (Stars Light Up) and Threshold 1 (Big Bang), I don’t think I could come up with any good questions related to my interest in coffee. And so, I would not try to force my research back to those thresholds.

2.) Look for answers to your questions, taking notes on what you find:
Try to answer these questions using books, journals, or possibly interviewing experts on your topic. Make sure to take notes on what you’re learning and link your notes both to your big questions and to the source (e.g., book, web, person) of the information.

Note: Remember to look for the ways people support their claims, not just what they write or what they say. Use the claim testers!

I always pay attention to how the books, journals, internet and the people I investigate support their claims. Why? Simply because I want to use the best and most trustworthy claims I can find. So, I always ask, “Are my sources supporting their claims using intuition, logic, authority or empirical evidence?” Claim testing is a very important skill that BHP teaches. I use it regularly and think you should as well.

3.) Regularly write notes to yourself or tell others what you’re learning about your topic:
Don’t wait until you have to write your final paper to figure out what you think about your topic. Write regular memos or notes to yourself. After you read or talk with a new source, take a few minutes to explain to yourself what you’ve learned. Try to do this each week. Let classmates, friends or parents review them. Doing this informally and regularly will make it easier for you to figure out what you know and don’t know about your topic—and it will make writing the final paper or presentation a lot easier. 

4.) Finally, put all of it together to tell a good story that answers the big questions about your topic:
Did you notice how all the videos and most of the essays in the Big History Project begin with big questions and sets out to answer those questions? I think that is a good way to go about presenting your finished product. Try starting your paper or presentation with the big questions you want to answer for your audience. Try also to figure out what is the best way to answer those questions and teach others what you have learned. It might take a few drafts to arrange your findings so you can tell a well-supported and engaging story. Make sure to explain why your topic is important, significant or just plain interesting.

And remember, it is ok and, in fact, it is important to let your audience know the claims you think are well supported by authority, logic and empirical evidence—and those that are not so well supported or only rely on intuition. You might even include questions you asked that still don’t have good answers.

One final tip: Have fun!
Unlike research students (and teachers) have done in other history classes, your LBH is going to be different and original. Few students have looked at the history of anything across so much time and used so many disciplines, such as chemistry, biology and physics, to tell the story. So, have a good time. Remember: you are contributing to our collective learning.

lbh3

Example of student LBH: Alkaline Batteries

THE GAME OF (EVOLUTIONARY) LIFE

Chris Steussy
BHP Teacher, California, USA

game-of-life1

This was one of those lessons that could so easily have flopped. I was worried the kids wouldn’t have enough context. I was worried there wouldn’t be enough buy in, enough time, or worse, too much. I felt like we needed some sort of application of our newfound understanding of evolution by natural selection. We’ve written a lot of essays. We’ve done presentations and a lot of cartooning. We needed something different. I’ve always wanted to make a Big History game but that seemed too much. The Game of Life, the classic board game I played as a kid, and recently played with my kids, sprung to mind. I wondered though, if my students would even have heard of it.

game-of-life2

The Game of Life 1960 version, courtesy magisterrex

First I found two simple graphics. I found an image of the classic board. Then I found a video of TV ads for the Game of Life from the 50s-90s (they are not super helpful, but funny and campy).

Day 1 – Intro and game making

I started with a simple question, and this was where I knew if this was even going to get off the ground. “How many of you have heard of, played or seen the ‘Game of Life’?” To my surprise, in each of my two sections of 36+ 13-14 year old freshmen, over half of the kids raised their hands. I asked one to explain the basic rules. Then I said, “Great, now stop. I want you to invent your own game of life but it must be life on an evolutionary scale, across billions of years.” I showed the YouTube ads and the image of the game board. Then I put up the following instructions.

game-of-life3

YOU MUST HAVE

  • At least one hundred stops along the board (you may copy layout of original game board but you do not have to).

YOU MAY HAVE

  • Life’s universal common ancestor (LUCA)
  • Extinction events
  • Cards for energy or resources
  • Setbacks
  • Thresholds
  • Goldilocks conditions
  • Cyborgs
  • Aliens
  • Etc.

THINK ABOUT

  • Game play
  • What does it mean to “win”?
  • Big History concepts (Scale)

game-of-life4

Then I turned them loose, alone or in small groups. I promised the winning team Big History T-shirts. Then I texted Bob Regan and I asked for T-shirts. He texted right back. We were in.

We have 90-minute blocks and by the time they started we had over 60 minutes left. I told them they would have a ten-minute head start and then I would check on them. After 10 minutes of pretending to check e-mail and doing teacher things I said, “Ready or not, here I come!” With pen and paper I checked in on each group, wrote down names, answered questions and gave guidance. Every group or individual worked right up to the bell. I promised they could come in at lunch, or during my prep time, several did. In the next class they would have 20 minutes to strategize on presenting.

Day 2 – Present and play

After 20 minutes of group strategizing, each group got 5 minutes to present and they were amazing. Some were obviously the product of many hours of work. Some had very clever game play, like when anyone hits an extinction event everybody returns to the start. Some games ended with evolution to a “higher” being, others ended in the death of all life. With the balance of class they played their own games or anyone else’s game.

game-of-life5

Day 3 – Vote

We voted. In each class there was exactly one very poor game. Of the 7 or 12 remaining in each they were all 90-100%.

Next year, to do it differently, I might bring the game in with all of the variety of cards and get kids to think about what cards they might have. I think I’ll also emphasize the mini-thresholds of life (which we had just seen).

In the end it turns out 21st century kids are gamers. And they don’t need to be video games.

game-of-life6