BIG HISTORY: COMBINING HISTORY AND SCIENCE IN THE CLASSROOM FOR A GREATER GOOD

Dan Zevin, Public Education Specialist, Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley

It was an honor to be involved with the addition of new science lessons to the Big History Project (BHP) course curriculum. A little more than a year ago, I was looking for collaborators here at the University of California, Berkeley, where I work as a public education specialist at the Space Sciences Laboratory. I had the inklings of an idea: build a curriculum that combines elements from history, civic engagement, and other social science disciplines with elements from cutting-edge science in order to instill in students something I call planet pride. The grand scheme was to deemphasize nationalism and instead encourage a better appreciation for our planet and species, which would eventually lead to a greater desire for peaceful coexistence and cooperation among ourselves and with nature. Some of this thinking came from my astronomy colleagues’ ever-growing number of discoveries of new planets where life might exist, and perhaps even be “intelligent,” like us. That’s what my friends with the Berkeley SETI Research Center are really hoping to find and, by the way, for which they just got a huge influx of money to increase their chances.

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Artist’s conception of the structure of the Milky Way, including the location of the spiral stellar arms. By NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. HurtPublic Domain.

What happens when we make contact? I don’t see it happening quite yet, but maybe one day we can get more young people thinking about what they would most want to boast about when describing Earth to intelligent creatures from other planets: Our biodiversity? Culture? Our oceans? Art? Perhaps more important, what do we need to spruce up before anyone visits?

One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was meeting with people from BHP and talking about how history and science are so intertwined, yet still pretty much remain in their silos in the K-12 world. As a growing new discipline and by its very definition, Big History must break this practice. Attracting more science teachers to the course is a vital component to BHP’s successful evolution. But should there really be any resistance? Those of us in the Big History camp already know that both history and science rely heavily on the constant search for new evidence to correctly tell a particular story. Much of science is in fact history as recorded and told by nature. Both disciplines want to know how and why things happened so that we better understand the world around us today, and make smarter decisions for our future. And of course, science and technological advances and revelations have shaped human history and feature prominently in today’s history courses.

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Figure 1 The 13.7 billion year lifetime of the universe mapped onto a single year. By Efbrazil, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I don’t by any means advocate dismissing standard history curricula. Though human history accounts for less than a day on the cosmic calendar, it’s tremendously important we fully understand our many successes and failures in significant detail. But I really wished Big History had been offered when I was a youth. I think I would have developed more quickly some sympathy for our fledgling species, despite all its many skirmishes since the first sticks and stones were raised. And I would have had even more amazement for our rapid technological advances and our ability to cope with ever-increasing challenges. Better still though, I think I would have acquired a more urgent appreciation of our species’ relatively rare and miniscule home, and would have understood sooner that just about everything we do collectively here on Earth has an impact on and plays a role in our forever shared future with this (so far) one-of-a-kind life-giving planet.

BHP AND BERKELEY TEAM UP FOR MORE SCIENCE

BHP Team Post

Each year, we update the Big History Project course with new assets and activities to help keep it fresh and address feedback from our teachers. We’re pleased to announce that as part of this year’s update, we’ve added a set of 11 new science lessons. Co-developed with our friends at the Space Science Laboratory at the University of California–Berkeley, these lessons take the science in the course a level deeper.

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The scale of the universe mapped to the branches of science and the hierarchy of science. By Efbrazil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Big History Project course (BHP) talks about science. A lot. We start with the Big Bang, and from there we look at the formation of stars, chemical elements, the planets, and life itself. Yet, BHP is not a science course. It uses the insights of multiple disciplines—scientific and nonscientific—to inform our understanding of human history. Each of the science-heavy units looks at the collective learning of the scientists and scholars that developed the theories across generations and geographies. For many teachers and students, these are the best units in the course.

The new lessons we’ve added help interested teachers explore the science of Big History a little more deeply with their students. These new videos, new readings, and other assets are designed to illustrate the core ideas while providing a new set of driving questions for students to explore. A short summary of the lessons follows here.

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Lesson 1.4: Yardsticks and Clocks
As humans have devised ways to observe more and more in space, we’ve needed new kinds of yardsticks and clocks to measure the enormous distances between objects and to pinpoint key events using the scale of the Big History timeline.

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Lesson 2.3: The Expanding Universe
What does it mean for space to be expanding? And if everything is expanding, why isn’t the Earth getting further from the Sun, and our Milky Way galaxy getting further from the Andromeda galaxy? Why aren’t houses, humans, and hamburgers expanding, too?

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Lesson 3.3: Sorting Stars
When astronomers first started looking at the stars, they had only the naked eye. All they noticed was that some stars were brighter than others and that they were different colors. Over time, groundbreaking techniques of observation have led to deeper understanding of the different kinds of stars.

Lesson 3.4: How Old Is the Sun? The Sun shines, but why and for how long? Our understanding of the Sun fell short when it came to explaining the energy powering it. Then, along came Einstein. His work helped to explain our Sun and all the stars of the Universe.

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Lesson 4.4: The True Nature of Our Solar System
In antiquity, planets were thought to be gods wandering through the sky. With the invention of the telescope, they were revealed to be entire worlds, with a vast range of different characteristics.

Lesson 4.5: Exoplanets
The past two decades mark the beginning of a new revolution in astronomy, as we start to find planets orbiting other stars and search for Earth-like planets outside of our Solar System.

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Lesson 5.4: Impacts!
What happens when objects from space collide with the Earth? Space collisions and Earth impacts have been affecting the Universe since the beginning of time. What size space object would it take to trigger an extinction event on Earth?

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Lesson 7.3: What Should We Eat?
As agriculture has moved from a mainly subsistence necessity to an overwhelmingly commercial enterprise, our ability to choose what we want to eat has steadily increased. We’ve had millennia to contemplate what foods are best for us; yet, the argument over what we as a species should be eating has never been more heated and bewildering.

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Lesson 9.8: To Infinity and Beyond!
The twenty-first century has seen increasing involvement of private industry in space exploration. What does the future hold as humans contemplate settling on worlds beyond Earth?

Lesson 9.9: Energizing the Future
The availability of cheap energy has been the key to the rapid technological progress that began with the Industrial Revolution. But as fossil fuels become scarcer and our choice of energy sources influences our planet’s climate, where might we turn for the energy to power our future?

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Lesson 10.3: Are We Alone?
Humans have long wondered if we’re alone in the Universe. Earth is just one planet in a Universe with trillions of planets. If we were to find life on other planets, would that become the next major threshold in Big History? What possible major breakthroughs in history might unfold from this point forward?

We hope you’ll review these lessons and incorporate as much of the new materials into your teaching as you can. To help you get started with planning, we’ve created a sample BHP Science course plan in Word and PDF formats.

Let us know what you think by posting comments in the BHP Science group on the BHP Teacher Community on Yammer. Although we’re particularly interested in hearing about how useful the new materials are for helping you focus on the intersection of BHP and science, we’re grateful for all of your feedback.

Good luck and enjoy!

BHP LAUNCHES FULL ONLINE TRAINING COURSE FOR TEACHERS – ENROLL NOW

BHP Team Post

Ready to teach Big History? Whether you’re teaching the course for the first time or you’ve got a year or two under your belt, we hope this new training for teachers will have something for you.

Today, we’re proud to announce Teaching Big History. This online course, designed to help teachers prepare to teach BHP, covers the big ideas of BHP, the instructional practices, the program details, and the BHP Teacher Community. We worked with our BHP teachers and the University of Michigan to develop the scripts and articles for the course so that it reflects the latest thinking about teaching social studies and has a strong classroom focus. We’re hoping this course will give you a running start to the year.

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Teaching Big History homepage

Click here to get started with Teaching Big History.

Course Content

The Big History Project consists of eight thresholds and ten units, which make up the core narrative of the course. We’ve heard from many experienced teachers that getting this story down is an important first step in the course. Based on the public version of the course, Teaching BHP will walk you through each threshold as well as selected videos and readings to help you understand the central narrative of the course.

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Eight thresholds across ten units

Instructional Practices

Teaching Big History takes you through the key assumptions that shape our approach to reading, writing, and inquiry, assumptions that inform all the activities and lessons. For example, BHP has an approach to teaching reading called three close reads. This approach encourages students to read each article multiple times, looking first at the gist, then at the facts of the article, and finally reading the article for conceptual level connections to the driving question of the unit. This approach is woven into all of the lesson content and consistently deployed across the course. You aren’t required to use this method—or any method—in your teaching practice. If you have an approach that’s working for you or that is more appropriate for your students, we encourage you to keep using it. However, we’ve heard from many of our teachers that the BHP approaches have proven incredibly helpful.

We asked our veteran BHP teachers to help us identify the most important questions and issues across the course. Together with the University of Michigan, we created a series of videos working from scripts drafted by those teachers. Then, we asked our teachers to write short pieces, called Teacher Takes, which explain how these issues play out in their classrooms.

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Veteran BHP teacher, Jenny Holloway

Program Details

Teaching Big History is designed to help you get a handle on topics like setting up a course, planning the year, and getting help. There are a lot of materials and a lot of resources available, and Teaching Big History will help you to get your arms around all of them so they’re not overwhelming.

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Sample year-long course plan

BHP Teacher Community

One of the most important resources of BHP is the online teacher community. Teachers rely on this community to find answers to questions, get inspiration, or just compare notes with peers. To help you get used to using this online resource, we’ve created a series of exercises and woven them into Teaching Big History. The first invites teachers new to BHP to introduce themselves to their peers. Then, for each unit of the course, we invite teachers to talk about a video, reading, or activity they’re interested in using in their class. We will have a group of experienced teachers ready to discuss their experience at each step along the way. These discussions are important, as this is how most teachers get help as they progress through the year of teaching the Big History Project course.

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A few of the many members of the BHP teaching community

A Gift for You

Teaching BHP is just the start of your teaching experience. Everyone completing the course will be sent a certificate for 9½ hours of continuing education, which they can share with their district. But even after you’ve finished the training, we expect you’ll want to keep reading. So, to help you along the way, everyone who completes the course will be sent a $25 Amazon gift card. And to help you use that gift card, we asked current BHP teachers to list their favorite BHP-related books, which you can find here.

Click here to get started with Teaching Big History.