Scott Collins, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA

Unit 4 of Big History features Fleeing the Surface of the Earth, an activity that’s revisited several times in the unit. In the activity, students plan an exit strategy from Earth in the face of an impending extinction event. This activity guides students to think like scientists and raises a legitimate question, one that I feel should be getting more attention: “What would we do if faced with another catastrophic collision event such as the K-T event?”

NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA. Public Domain.

With increased access to technology in the classroom, answers are always at students’ fingertips. “What are the starting materials for photosynthesis?” A quick Internet search yields the answer: glucose, sunlight, and water. However, in the case of Fleeing the Surface of the Earth—and many others that are included in the Big History Project’s  curriculum—search engines are no longer the quick means to an end. This activity raises issues that are getting very little consideration from think tanks anywhere. There is a planet-wide disaster looming. Should it hit, where would we go? How would we get there? Who would fund the project? In Unit 4, students consider these questions and must assemble a multidisciplinary team (integrating multiple disciplines—an essential skill of BHP) to formulate an answer— quickly—to reach safety within one year.  I love this activity because the students become the think tank. They become the problem solvers who are charged with answering a question that neither NASA nor SpaceX has answered.

In my class, I have students create a digital poster using Google Drawings. Included on their poster is their timeline, a map of where they intend to go, and mock-ups of any technology/facilities that they might need (shuttle, transport vehicles, living quarters, for example). I also ask them to include a budget estimate for their project, knowing that the International Space Station cost its developers $100 billion in 1998. Students realize quickly that, should they choose to leave Earth, planning an escape is an incredibly daunting task—especially when they must do it in 365 days.

The questions posed by this activity require big thought—something that the Big History Project does not shy away from. And, who knows? Maybe it will be a Big History student, centuries from now, who ends up being the project manager for the recolonization program that saves our species.

About the author: Scott Collins is a high school science teacher in Lemont, IL. In addition to BHP, he teaches AP biology, honors biology, and integrated science. His school is on a semester system. Scott’s eleventh- and twelfth-grade BHP classes run about 85 minutes long and focus heavily on the science content. About 60 students per year join him on the 13.8-billion-year journey.


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