ONE DAY, THREE MUSEUMS…13.8 BILLION YEARS OF HANDS-ON HISTORY

Greg Dykhouse
BHP Teacher, Michigan, USA

History 9 Ann Arbor April (3) 2016

Black River Public School visit UMMA

Covering everything Big History has to offer in just one school year can be intimidating, even to the best planners. But imagine if there were an activity that made you feel like you’d taught all 13.8 billion years of the course in a single day? On last month’s jaunt to the museums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, freshmen from Black River Public had their minds blown—as did their chaperones and teacher–during what we called the Third Annual Big History Extravaganza.

It’s no secret that a field trip can generate learning experiences not possible in the classroom, but to explore the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Museum of Art in the context of Big History is to hop from one threshold to the next at a fantastic pace.

History 9 Ann Arbor Natural History April 2016

Mastodon exhibit at the Museum of Natural History

For example, students were able view and even touch a 4-billion-year-old rock, and suddenly Unit 4 (Earth and the Solar System) became more tangible than it had ever been. In the Museum of Natural History, displays of the earliest life forms, the transition from water to land, early amphibians and dinosaurs, the rise of mammals, and earliest forms of humans hurled students headlong into Unit 5 (Life).

In the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, student got a close look at prehuman tools dating back 1.5 million years, as well as artifacts from early Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt (yes, mummies!). This journey into Unit 6 (Collective Learning) was dramatically expanded when students also got to see the traveling exhibition, “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii.”

At the Kelsey, Unit 7 (Agriculture) came vividly to life in displays of crops and agricultural products from early Neolithic societies to the early complex societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and on to the classical periods of Greece and Rome.

History 9 Ann Arbor Museum of Art Revolutions in Art April 2016

In the Mountain Fastness, by Daniel Huntington, UMMA

Thank goodness we brought our art teacher, because it was exciting to view Unit 8 (Expansion and Interconnection) and Unit 9 (The Modern Revolution) through the lens of artistic achievements. From the carved ivories, enamels, and sculptures of the Middle Ages up to the baroque, romantic, and avant-garde paintings, several centuries of artists carried us to the modern age with a kaleidoscope of great works.

Now, to be honest, we didn’t really cover Units 1, 2, and 3, but since the Museum of Natural History includes a planetarium, displays of stars and galaxies, and a hall of chemical elements, we certainly could have—although we’d probably need another day. As far as Unit 10 (The Future) goes… well let’s just say that if you have the means to put a multimuseum visit in your students’ future, you’ll be amazed at the connections between the course we’re studying and the tactile, in-your-face evidence waiting for you at museums all over the country.

The traveling exhibition (“Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii”) in Ann Arbor closed on May 15, 2016. You can catch it if you’re lucky enough to live near Montana State University, Bozeman (June 17 to December 31, 2016) or the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts (February 3 to August 13, 2017). But of course, many cities have something similar to offer, so do some research to find exhibits your students can visit and see how many Big History thresholds you can cover in a single day (or two)!

BIG HISTORY SUMMER READING LIST

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Reading in a Courtyard, by Rudolf Ernst. Public Domain.

The best part of teaching Big History is that we’re always learning right alongside our students. As the year winds down here in the US, many BHP teachers are looking for books to take with them to the beach, the mountains, or wherever they choose to unwind this summer.

We asked our teacher leaders for their favorite books related to Big History and this list is what they came up with.

Want to talk more about these books? Got other suggestions? Join the BHP Teacher Community on Yammer and visit the Big History Book Club group. And while you’re there,  let us know what you think.

Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat

by Kay Frydenborg

Chocolate hits all the right sweet—and bitter—notes: cutting-edge genetic science whisked in with a strong social conscience, history, and culture yield one thought-provoking look into one of the world’s most popular foods.


The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

by David W. Anthony

Roughly half the world’s population speaks languages derived from a shared linguistic source known as Proto-Indo-European. But who were the early speakers of this ancient mother tongue, and how did they manage to spread it around the globe?


Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

by Max Tegmark

Max Tegmark leads us on an astonishing journey through past, present, and future, and through the physics, astronomy,  and mathematics that are the foundation of his work, most particularly his hypothesis that our physical reality is a mathematical structure and his theory of the ultimate multiverse.


The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

by Brian Greene

Space and time form the very fabric of the cosmos. Yet they remain among the most mysterious of concepts. Is space an entity? Why does time have a direction? Could the universe exist without space and time? Can we travel to the past? Greene has set himself a daunting task: to explain non-intuitive, mathematical concepts…with analogies drawn from common experience.


Big History and the Future of Humanity

by Fred Spier

[T]he new edition of Big History and the Future of Humanity presents an accessible and original overview of the entire sweep of history from the origins of the universe and life on Earth up to the present day. Placing the relatively brief period of human history within a much broader framework…Big History is an innovative theoretical approach that opens up entirely new multidisciplinary research agendas.


The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

by Steven Pinker

Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species’ existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history.


Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived

by Chip Walter

Over the past 180 years scientists have discovered evidence that at least 27 species of humans evolved on planet Earth. … Chip Walter tells the intriguing tale of how against all odds and despite nature’s capricious ways we stand here today, the planet’s most dominant species.


Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

by Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlansky has written a fabulous book—well worth your time—about a fish that probably has mattered more in human history than any other. The cod helped inspire the discovery and exploration of North America. It had a profound impact upon the economic development of New England and eastern Canada from the earliest times.


The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

by Sam Kean

The periodic table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it’s also a treasure trove of adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow every element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, and in the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.


Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present

by Cynthia Stokes Brown

Extend the human story backward for the five thousand years of recorded history and it covers no more than a millionth of a lifetime of the Earth. Yet how do we humans take stock of the history of our planet, and our own place within it?…Big History interweaves different disciplines of knowledge to offer an all-encompassing account of history on Earth.


Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

by David Christian

An introduction to a new way of looking at history, from a perspective that stretches from the beginning of time to the present day, Maps of Time is world history on an unprecedented scale. Beginning with the Big Bang, David Christian views the interaction of the natural world with the more recent arrivals in flora and fauna, including human beings.


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution—a #1 international bestseller—that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human.”


The Oldest Living Things in the World

by Rachel Sussman, Carl Zimmer, and Hans Ulrich Obrist

Over the past decade, artist Rachel Sussman has researched, worked with biologists, and traveled the world to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. Spanning from Antarctica to Greenland, the Mojave Desert to the Australian Outback, the result is a stunning and unique visual collection of ancient organisms unlike anything that has been created in the arts or sciences before.


The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks

by Terry Sissons

If you are among the many who think of billions, or a hundred thousand, or tens of millions of years ago as all just “a very very long time ago,” The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks will be an enlightening surprise. Terry Sissons divides time into six chunks—fewer numbers than are in a telephone number —to create a review of the 13.7 billion years of all of time.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.


This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity (This World of Ours)

by David Christian

A great historian can make clear the connections between the first Homo sapiens and today’s version of the species, and a great storyteller can make those connections come alive. David Christian is both. This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity makes the journey a fascinating one. Christian takes us from the Big Bang to the earliest foraging era to the present Anthropocene epoch.


A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

From primordial nothingness to this very moment, A Short History of Nearly Everything reports what happened and how humans figured it out…. Bill Bryson uses hundreds of sources, from popular science books to interviews with luminaries in various fields. His aim is to help people like him, who rejected stale school textbooks and dry explanations, to appreciate how we have used science to understand the smallest particles and the unimaginably vast expanses of space.


Seveneves: A Novel

by Neal Stephenson

What would happen if the world were ending? A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

BHP INVITES STUDENTS TO QUESTION THE THINGS THEY “KNOW”

Chris Steussy
BHP Teacher, California, U.S.A.

“BIG HISTORY is where we get to ask BIG questions about LIFE, the UNIVERSE, and EVERYTHING.”

That quote is lifted straight off of my curriculum, which I share on the first day of class. But I don’t share it first thing. The first thing I do is say, “Come with me….” And we go outside.

We walk to the garden. Right now, it’s a rather sad garden.

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The school garden

It’s surrounded by parking spots, isn’t near any classrooms, and as of this writing, is quite obviously neglected. It has some curious objects.

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One of the curious objects

And still holds some beauty.

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Beauty, even in winter

I stand on one of the tables, gather my students around me, and I invite them to wonder. Where did all of this come from? What is this place? What are any of the things in it and around it doing here? I ask the class to do a three-minute quick-write on where they think any one thing they see came from. They can write about the garden, or a flower, or a car, or a cloud—anything. The important thing is that they wonder.

Back in the classroom, we begin our discussion of their musings. One clever student might share that everything came from stardust and another might point out that the garden came from a local government grant. I point out that although these are both correct, the reason the answers are different is because they’re dealing with vastly different scales. Then I share this with them:

Steussy-questions4

The circles of causality

When you shake a tree and the apples fall off, what causes them to fall? Is it the actual shaking of the tree, the ripeness of the fruit, or the planting of the tree several years ago? All three are, of course, correct; but they are approaching the question from different scales.

At this point, a clever student might say, “the bench came from a garden nursery in La Mesa.” When I ask how they know that, they may point to the evidence of the stamp they saw on the bench. Aha! Evidence! One of what we will call claim testers. And then, I introduce them to ALIE (an easy-to-remember acronym for authority, logic, intuition, and evidence), and point out that evidence is used in many different disciplines, such as history and archaeology, to help answer questions.

I might get a kid who asks if the trees came from the ground and the ground came from the Earth and the Earth came from the Big Bang. My reaction is, yeah kid, do you know that you’re describing the thresholds of increasing complexity? Think of it. A tree, by most standards, is more complex than dirt. Why? How does something complex come from something simple?

This is how I begin to invite the kids to ask some meaningful questions. I try to spark their curiosity every day. Where did school come from? Where did poodles come from? Why do we have the government that we have?

One of the biggest hurdles to this effort is that kids come into ninth grade “knowing” a lot of stuff. They “know” people once believed the world was flat (ask Bob Bain about that one). They “know” that some people deny Darwin’s theory of natural selection. They “know” that they have five senses and there are different races of humans. So every once in a while, you need to blow their minds with something like this:

And then invite them to wonder about other things that they “know.” Although I only show about 60 seconds of the video, it’s enough for a few priceless “what the heck?” moments.