David Burzillo, BHP Teacher
Massachusetts, USA

For several years, I’ve asked my students to read Jared Diamond’s article “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” an excerpt from which can be found in Investigation 7. Discussing the eating habits and nutrition of early humans always raises a lot of questions for my students: How can we know what early humans ate? Is it different from what we eat today? Did they eat three meals a day? How much did they eat? These questions also give rise to some great discussion about the work that archaeologists and anthropologists do and the ways they can tease information out of the fossil record.


Cave painting, Algerian desert, by Gruban, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Left). Agricultural scenes in ancient Egypt, public domain. Lunch, public domain.

Discussing these issues can lead students to some great insights. Comparing sample diets of hunter-gatherers, early farmers, and modern humans in the Nutrition Hunt activity from Lesson 7.3 provides students with a concrete way to delve deeper. I asked my students to keep track of the food they ate on a particular day; they then calculated the calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat content of those foods.

Some students were struck by the fact that the typical forager diet provided more calories than that of early farmers. In comparing the sample modern-day diets consumed by members of the class, a number were struck by some significant calorie differences between male and female classmates. “Those are the guys who play sports,” said one, but another immediately chimed in: “The girls are athletes too! That can’t be driving the difference.”

This year was the first time I taught this activity, and I was pleased with how it went. A few tips: Students might need calculators to tally up calorie totals in each food category. Also, although you can do this activity without Internet connectivity (just share with students a printout of the Nutritional Information for School Lunch Program Foods, which is included in the activity PDF), my students found that the USDA Food Composition Database provided a nice complement. This database is searchable and provides nutrition info on over 180,000 foods.

This activity was a fun and relevant way to get students thinking about the connections between past and present through a topic they love talking about—food. If you teach Big History before lunch, be prepared for some complaints from students about how hungry the lesson has made them!

About the author: Dave Burzillo has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history in each class. He has 12-16 students in each class. Recently, Dave began offering an online BHP course in the summer.

Checking for Credible Sources

Y. Bonilla, BHP Score Team
Arizona State University, USA

*Teachers: The ASU Writing Center / BHP Score team will be hosting an extended conversation on this topic from February 27-March 3 in the BHP Online Teacher Community. Join us!

While there are several steps for critical reading outlined in BHP’s “Teaching Reading” guide, one of the most important steps for students to focus on is resource quality. Checking for resource quality is one way to engage students in evaluating the veracity of a source’s argument and content. This step can serve students both inside and outside the classroom as they find themselves inundated with information from television, print, and the web. As students encounter a variety of information, the habit of checking resource quality can remind them to check the credibility of that information. Since not all sources are credible, students need to know how to be critical evaluators and active readers of any source they read or use as evidence.


Student reading, by Francisco Osorio. CC BY 2.0.

Following these steps or questions will allow students to make informed decisions about whether or not a source is credible.

Questions for Evaluating Source Credibility

  • Verifying Source: Is the source relevant to the essay topic or assignment prompt?
  • Identifying Audience: Is the source intended for an academic audience or the general public?
  • Evaluating Source: Who published the source and on what website did they publish it? What organization or group published the source? To what degree does the information in the published material come from reliable sources?
  • Researching Experts: Did you research to see if the author, publisher, or organization responsible for the content is an expert in the field of the topic discussed?
  • Checking for Citations and Credentials: Did you check that the citations and credentials correlate with the author or organization’s area of expertise?
  • Source Appearance: Is the source free of spelling or grammatical errors? Does the source use appropriate language and tone?
  • Evidence: What additional sources or other evidence did the author use to support his or her argument?
  • Crosschecking Information: Did you crosscheck the information presented in the source with another source to ensure the information is accurate and valid? In other words, can you find other sources to verify the accuracy of the information or evidence provided in the source you are using?
  • Assessing Sources: Does the source provide a singular viewpoint or multiple viewpoints on the topic?
  • Counterclaims: Does the source include counterclaims?

One way to have students begin looking at the credibility of sources is by incorporating the Big History Website Scavenger Hunt activity. Although the BHP Scavenger Hunt is intended to familiarize students with the BHP website, you can also use it as a model to help students better understand how to identify the credibility of sources available outside the BHP curriculum.

Another way to engage students in evaluating the credibility of sources is to provide examples for discussion in the classroom. For example, you might bring in supplemental sources, such as news articles and televised newscasts, to use with Investigation Library texts to help students distinguish between credible and noncredible sources.

Reviewing sources for credibility is a great opportunity to deepen students’ ability to think critically about the information they consume. In an era where kids and teenagers struggle to distinguish between “real” and “fake” news, this is of utmost importance.

About the author: Y. Bonilla sits on the BHP Score team at Arizona State University. You can learn more about the BHP Score team in this blog post.


Rachel Hansen, Big History Teacher
Iowa, USA

“The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.”


Aerial Machine invented by Dr. W. O. Ayres of New Haven (1885). Scientific American published May 9, 1885. Public domain.

This is the description of “civilizational flight” from Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. In Quinn’s metaphor, our civilization is a poorly designed aircraft, doomed for collapse and on a dangerously misunderstood flight. We’ve made an unfortunate miscalculation, mistaking freefall for flight.

The Rise, Fall, and Collapse of Civilizations, in Lesson 7.2, raises thought-provoking questions about civilizations that experienced this same disastrous “civilizational flight.” What I appreciate most about this activity is the simplicity of the directions and the freedom for students to explore the causes of societal collapse on their own.

Students choose three civilizations of the past, and then begin conducting their investigation. Included in their research is the reason for collapse, the claim testers, theory alignment (internal weakness, external conquests, environmental disasters), and citations. The activity is a great way to put the claim testers to work, and an engaging opportunity for students to build their skills in using evidence in argumentation. It also makes for an incredibly insightful Socratic seminar discussion, filled with more questions than answers.

We set up this activity with some visual note-taking on Jared Diamond’s TED Talk, “Why Do Societies Collapse?”. In his talk, Diamond outlines a five-point framework for collapse, using the Greenland Norse to illustrate his thesis:

● Human impacts on the environment
● Climate change
● Relations with friendly neighbors
● Relations with hostile neighbors
● Political, economic, social, and cultural factors

Our students find questions of societal collapse intriguing. This activity stirs up their intellectual curiosity, which compels them to find answers to challenging questions and ask more of their own. What happened to the Anasazi? Why did the Mayan civilization collapse just after its peak? To what extent does our own civilization show warning signs of collapse?

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP world history course over two 180-day semesters to about 50 ninth- through twelfth-grade students each school year.