A “Grand” Big History Adventure

Kathy Hays, BHP Teacher
Arizona, USA

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Kathy Hays’s class at the Grand Canyon. All pictures by Kathy Hays.

One of the best things about teaching Big History is that it gives me the opportunity to help students experience history firsthand. This past summer, I started planning a field trip to the Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory to reinforce concepts from Unit 4. It would be a long day, but worth it. I figured we could introduce geology as we walked the Trail of Time, and examine the Solar System to reinforce Unit 3 concepts.

As we started Unit 3 and began to discuss stars and the elements, I made in-class connections to what students would observe on the trip. When we introduced Unit 4, I had students brainstorm about how visiting the Grand Canyon would enhance the concepts they were learning. I felt they were prepared for the trip. Little did I know I had greatly underestimated the connections to Big History concepts we’d make as we explored the Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory.

Within a half-hour of arriving at the Grand Canyon, we saw Big History come to life. The first thing we did at the Visitor Center was view a short movie on the creation of the canyon—a perfect tie-in to Lesson 1.2, with its focus on origin stories. The course theme of scale was emphasized when we inspected two scale models of the Canyon and the layers of rock that comprise it. We also had a fantastic example of scale as we walked the 3-mile-long Trail of Time, which covers over 3 billion years of history and has small and large markers representing  1-million-year and 100-million-year intervals (kind of like the Big History timeline!). The Geology Museum featured a great history of the canyon that “ends” with the future, so we even managed to hit Unit 10.

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Hiking the Trail of Time.

We walked the trail, stopping at each sign to learn the geologic history of the canyon. The geologic explanations even touched on Threshold 5, as they included chemistry and information about single-celled organisms. We learned of early humans who lived in the area and the agriculture development that took place in the region (a great preview of Threshold 7). Students touched the different types of rocks found in the layers of the canyon and learned how climatologists and dendrochronologists help to tell the history of the canyon—a nice nod to the course themes of collective learning and interdisciplinarity.

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Rock layers on the Trail of Time.

Later, we headed to Lowell Observatory and saw the telescope used to discover Pluto, enabling another connection to collective learning. Outside, docents brought out telescopes that allowed us to see a couple of star clusters (Threshold 2) and the Moon (Threshold 4). We even found a couple of meteors. The evening ended with students speaking with an astronomer to learn about how he studies the stars.

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The Pluto Discovery Telescope at Lowell Observatory.

I am still in awe of all the connections we made to make to Big History concepts during this field trip. It was a perfect Big History day.

About the author: Kathy Hays has been teaching for 30 years, and this year is her second teaching Big History. She teaches five BHP classes a year, and so reaches about 130 ninth-grade students. Her school is on a semester schedule with daily 52-minute periods. Kathy’s favorite thing about teaching Big History is the opportunity to learn with her students!

 

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