Rachel Hansen, BHP Teacher
Iowa, USA

As budding teenagers, our students have a pretty small worldview. Big History challenges them to expand that tiny bubble. Lesson 8.3’s Personal Supply Chain activity especially shatters a lot of preconceived notions students have about the way the world works. As they trace the supply chain of a product they’ve chosen, they find that the process is much more complex than they ever imagined—and sometimes not as transparent as they’d like it to be. Even products manufactured in the USA use raw materials and energy sources from all over the world. Or as one student put it, “Nothing is as local as it seems.”

I absolutely love watching their worldview explode. Here is our approach.


Step One: Made in (Insert Country Here)
To kick off the activity, we start by mapping where our shirts, shoes, electronics, backpacks, and notebooks are made. Then, we analyze the patterns and trends of the distribution of our stuff. We finish up by discussing the implications. Where in the world are our products NOT made? Why does it matter?

Step Two: What’s a Supply Chain?
If you have the luxury of time (like few of us), I highly recommend watching The Story of Stuff. It’s a great breakdown of four key components in the supply chain: supply, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption. If you’re squeezed for time (like most of us), check out NPR’s Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.

This year, we only had the luxury of 10 minutes to try and get students to grasp the whole supply chain concept, so we handed out fun-sized candy bars and asked students to do some quick research on raw materials, factories, transportation, and forms of energy used in the process. (Side note: The following day, I scolded a student for taking a phone call during class…only to find out he was on the phone with a representative from the Mars company, still unsatisfied with the answers he was getting about their palm oil suppliers. Worldview exploded.)

Student Sample: Burt’s Bees Pink Grapefruit Refreshing Lip Balm. This was the “nothing is as local as it seems” even though it is made in America product.

Step Three: Cut Them Loose!
Once they’ve explored the big picture, students are eager to get started on their own research. They choose an item and trace out its supply chain. Mapping their work is especially enlightening. As an extension, we also challenged students to map electronically using ArcGIS (check out this one of a surfboard). Here are some of the takeaways from our students:

  • “I realize now that certain companies can own companies I never knew of. It surprised me when I found out that SoBe is owned by PepsiCo.”
  • “I learned that there is a lot of money involved. It takes a lot of time and energy to make and ship these products.”
  • “It has opened my eyes to how big my carbon footprint is. I chose a product that I knew was made in America, and it makes me feel better about my use. I want to start using less and reduce my footprint. Because of this project, I know how to help the Earth.”

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.


  1. Rachel, this is a wonderful article. I especially liked the student on the cellphone calling the Mars company for further information. I love both videos, especially the Planet Money video, for its’ clear explanation of the chain in non-rhetorical terms.


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