The Mystery Box

Scott Henstrand, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

The following activity was developed by BHP teacher Scott Henstrand for his classroom. Please use as is or adapt as you see fit! Scott’s student materials are also available. Read more about Scott at the end of this post.

Making and testing claims is one of the fundamental skills in Big History. This skill is essential to understanding the continuous unfolding and modification of the Big History narrative. With so much still in the dark—“What came before the Big Bang?” “What are the details of the Big Bang itself?”—the narrative is never complete. In this activity, you will explore in groups the use of claim testers by investigating a box containing unknown materials and using your senses as empirical evidence to make claims about the items in the box.


Mystery box, by PDPics. CC0 Public Domain.

-One box per group of three or four students. The box is made from a 9x9x9-inch corrugated cardboard box. Put in three to five items such as a clothes pin, a wooden or Styrofoam ball, and a paper clip. Vary the items in the boxes. Tape shut with duct tape.
-One Mystery Box Observations Worksheet per student

Begin the exercise with a story of some sort that gives an aura of mystery to the boxes. Tell students that they are being challenged to use the four BHP claim testers to test claims on what is inside the boxes. Have students hand out the boxes, one per group. Let them explore the boxes and make claims based on logic and the evidence. Instruct them to make sure they jot down evidence and claims on their Mystery Box Observations worksheet.

Next, have students share their findings. Have them state their claims and defend them with claim testers. During this process, students will probably ask you, as an authority, to tell them what items are in the boxes. Don’t do it! Continue the process of sharing and claim testing. Another question that may emerge is whether or not the boxes contain the same items. This should be an opening to speak about scale. The contents can be looked at in the scale of one box or the scale of, say, nine boxes.

The last prompt is to state that you have one more Mystery Box to share. Build up to this and then point to your head and ask, “What’s inside this mystery box? What am I thinking?” Have another round of claims and claim testers.

At the end of the class, when the students expect you to reveal the contents of the boxes, leave them wondering by telling them, “You will never find out exactly what is contained in the boxes, as we will never be completely sure of the Big History story.”

By the way – I’ve uploaded a video of my class at work on this activity in the BHP online community.

About the author: Scott Henstrand has been teaching Big History at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, a public school in New York, since 2011. His school offers the course as a two-year deployment that replaces global studies. In the first year, Unit 1 through Unit 6 are covered; in the second year, Unit 6 through Unit 10. Scott loves teaching the course because of the fundamental philosophical implications of the material.


Garry Dagg, BHP Teacher
Vasse, Australia


Mother humpback and calf. NOAA Photo Library. CC BY 2.0.

So, you’ve seen the website. You’ve done the online training course. You’ve got the OK to launch this project on your unsuspecting class. You have got your head around 13.8 billion years of history that goes from the minute to the colossal, from bacteria to supernova. You have weighed the balance between science and the humanities and where your strengths and weaknesses will lie.

But now comes the real challenge: How do you tell this epic tale to a class full of fully, barely and partially engaged teenagers whose lives are filled with Instagram, puberty, future goals and nagging parents? The answer? By focusing on the through line and letting everything else take care of itself. Be a whale that comes up for breath, each Big History threshold a mighty spout visible to all, and then dives down again to various depths of the ocean of learning that this course allows.

We all have strengths and weaknesses—as educators, peers, parents, enthusiasts, and humans. We take these aspects into all parts of our lives and work with them every day; the Big History Project is no different. It can be daunting as an history teacher, as I am, to tackle the physics of the Big Bang—nature’s creation event; or the periodic table of the elements and its strange mix of numbers and letters.

While I will never be able to teach my students how ripples in the fabric of gravity have affected the expansion of the Universe, I can always bring them back to the great narrative of the Big History Project: Each stage has created Goldilocks Conditions that have allowed the next threshold of complexity to develop. In this way, my adaptation of the course reflects not just my teaching strengths, but also the aspects of the course that I know will engage and inspire my students. So, like a whale I come up for breath at each threshold and reiterate the point, consolidate the learning and ensure that all my students have grasped the majesty of each stage – stars lighting up, chemical elements exploding to life, our own Solar System being born—all the way to how their old age will look.

Then, when I dive down again into detail, like a whale chasing plankton or simply enjoying the warm waters, I choose with my students the depth of learning and teaching that we will engage in. As a history teacher, it will always have a historical bent; my handful of class periods on the chemical elements zoom in on the wondrous life of Dmitri Mendeleev, using the Life of a Star activity and Mendeleev articles to accompany the Big History video clips. Come Unit 6 and beyond, however, I dig deeper, accessing nearly all the resources from the site and telling the great story of human history and migration. At times it feels rushed and often it feels tangential, but throughout, the through line of Big History is maintained so students can follow the narrative, connect the thresholds, and breathe the narrative of history.

About the author: Garry teaches at Cape Naturaliste College in Vasse, Western Australia. He has taught Big History since 2013. All tenth-year students at his school take Big History. Classes are delivered over the course of a 20-week semester, with four 64-minute class periods per week. Garry says ,“All teachers in our department are BHP aficionados and love the perspective and depth it gives students.”


Jillian Turner, BHP Teacher
Sydney, Australia

My students LOVE talking about aliens; whether they’re out there, what they might look like, and how we might communicate with them. We started off Lesson 10.3 with the Drake Equation activity to get my students thinking critically about the future and the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth. I love using the Drake Equation activity because it can be the catalyst for a moment of revelation for students who have never considered the implications of the sheer size of the Universe for finding alien life.


Europa Rising – Drake Equation by Kevin Gill. CC BY 2.0.

I begin the lesson by posting 10 statements about the future around the room (feel free to download the template I created). Students write their name on the statements they believe are likely true. The statements range from, “Human-induced climate change will cause the extinction of our species” to “Technologically-advanced aliens will colonize our planet (and we’ll all die).” We discuss the statements with the most positive reactions to draw out why students have arrived at their conclusions.

After this discussion, I break the class up into six groups and give them each a step in the Drake Equation (as outlined on the activity worksheet). They have two minutes to decide on their response as a group. We then run through the activity with each group reporting their decision while I write our estimated chance of finding alien life on the board.

The last time we did this activity, my class ended with a number less than one, indicating that we don’t believe we will find intelligent life on another planet. We used this to consider our initial ideas about the future and to discuss whether anyone had changed their mind about versions of the future involving intelligent life beyond Earth.

Teachers are discussing this post and activity in the BHP online teacher community. Join in with any questions or insight you have!

About the author: Jillian Turner has taught history for 10 years and BHP for 4 years at both public and private secondary (high) schools in Sydney, Australia. Her school year lasts 40 weeks and she teaches the year-long BHP course to about 30 students per year.