Greg Dykhouse, BHP Teacher
Michigan, USA

Note from BHP Team: This post is in response to professor of physics Dr. Brian Keating’s recent piece, “Cosmic Dust.”  Dr. Keating writes about how the impact of dust remains largely unexplored, despite it being one of the most essential components in the life cycle of the cosmos.

The study of history is not static. By honing our skills and practices of exploration and inquiry, we continuously add to our knowledge of the past. 

Big History students see exploration and inquiry in action. The Big History Project provides students with the latest contributions from professionals in various fields of research. In Unit 2, The Big Bang, for example, students view commentary from cosmologist Tim McKay and astrophysicist Janna Levin (see Lesson 2.2). Both of these professionals illustrate well an important concept for our young learners: interdisciplinarity.  An interdisciplinary approach is one in which a topic is examined through the lenses of more than one field of study. Dr. McKay combines his knowledge of astronomy and physics as he attempts to answer his questions of interest: What was there before the Big Bang? What is dark matter? What is causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate? Where else in the Universe has life emerged? Dr. Levin suggests an understanding and love for the language of mathematics may assist us as we attempt to understand the unknown Universe. 

The Big Bang and the emergence of stars and chemical elements appear to make an important contribution to the Universe: dust. With his encouragement for us to “get dirty,” Dr. Brian Keating of UC San Diego introduces a couple of important questions to our students: What do astronomers mean when they talk about dust? Where does dust come from? 

As he directs our attention to these questions, Dr. Keating’s blog includes useful vocabulary terms that appear throughout the early units of Big History. Have students identify the following: origin stories, dark energy, the Milky Way, cosmology, hydrogen, helium, accretion, rocky planets, Galileo, iron. Challenge students to identify more advanced terms: multiverse, wormhole, protoplanetary disk, Carl Sagan, Kepler space telescope, William Herschel, Harlow Shapley, BICEPS2.

Students use these terms and ideas as they work to offer responses to Keating’s initial questions. Do your students have other questions about dust? Help them formulate new questions: How does dust contribute to the story of the Universe? How has our understanding of dust changed over time? Could we have an Earth or life on Earth without dust?

Keating offers a final thought, expressed by Mahatma Gandhi: “The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust.” What does this line mean? Why does Keating select this sentence to conclude his blog? Questioning the Universe, using Keating’s blog as a supplemental piece, allows for new exploration and inquiry in the classroom.

About the author: Greg Dykhouse has been teaching at Black River Public School in Holland, MI, for over 20 years. He has taught Big History there since 2011. He teaches the course to four sections of ninth graders that meet three times a week for 85-minute blocks. 

Cover image:  By ESO/Y Beletsky, CC BY 4.0.

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