Rachel Hansen, BHP Teacher
Muscatine, USA

I’ll admit, my heart races and my palms get a little sweaty when I think back to my high school chemistry class. We did not exactly see eye to eye. Mr. Hooper put up with a whole lot of sighs, eye rolls, and my futile attempts to wear a glow-in-the-dark periodic table of the elements shirt on test days. I lit a lot of things on fire in that class, including my notebook on the last day of school.

I tell you all of this so you can appreciate how remarkable it is that today my heart races with the anticipation of studying the history of chemistry. Never in a million years did I think I’d be teaching star formation and the periodic table in my history classroom—and enjoying it! I’ll admit, I even own a periodic table shower curtain. You win, chemistry.

Now I like to tell my own students: Yes, we learn about the periodic table in here. No, you’re not in the wrong class.

Teaching the art of inquiry

The thing I most enjoy about teaching Unit 3 is the opportunity to engage students in the art of inquiry. Our driving question encourages students to think beyond the realm of one discipline to get a much fuller and broader perspective of history. How can looking at the same information from different perspectives pave the way for progress?

Here is how we approach the art of inquiry in this unit.

Constructing Good Questions

How did the stars form? Why does star stuff matter? Why should I believe you? This unit is peppered with the kinds of questions that pique student interest and ignite their curiosity. Here are some of the activities that help them form the kinds of questions that fuel the inquiry process.

The Life of Star (Lesson 3.0)

Students probably don’t come into your classroom with much background knowledge on how stars form. That’s OK. I bet the four images in this activity will spark some questions. When we analyze these images in class, I ask students: What do you notice? What do you wonder?

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Is It in There? (Lesson 3.1)

Before I taught Big History, I had no idea that all of the elements on the periodic table were the result of dying stars. I also didn’t give much thought to the elements found in everyday items like my cell phone. This opening activity prompts some hilarious questions from students. I smile when I hear questions like: Is there metal in my blueberry muffin? Have you ever looked inside your cell phone? What makes it vibrate? How many of these elements are also inside of me?!

Why Star Stuff Matters (Lesson 3.1)

In this episode of Crash Course Big History, Emily Graslie gives us a Little Big History of a critical element for life: carbon. This is a tremendous way for students to connect the importance of the elements to our lives today.

Claim Testing Intuition (Lesson 3.2)

Where does inquiry begin? Your gut. It starts as this feeling you have—a gut instinct.

That voice you hear? It’s your intuition talking. Intuition is the underdog of the claim testers, often viewed as less credible than the powerhouses evidence and authority. However, intuition is where the inquiry process begins! Sharpen your students’ inquiry skills with this highly engaging activity.

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Green sticky notes mean your gut agrees with the claim. Red means it doesn’t. Yellow means you need more information to make a decision. (Photo Credit: Rachel Hansen)

Collecting Insights from Multiple Disciplines

Interdisciplinarity is a cornerstone of Big History. Drawing upon the insights of scholars from multiple fields is crucial for the formation of a full historical narrative. Unit 3 provides an opportunity to examine how the field of chemistry has evolved and changed over time.

Disciplines What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? (Lesson 3.2)

This engaging activity charges students with the task of assembling a research team to investigate what caused an impact crater. As they assume the role of astrophysicist, anthropologist, biologist, chemist, or geologist, students learn to ask questions from the perspective of that discipline.

Dmitri Mendeleev: Building the Periodic Table of the Elements (Lesson 3.2)

How did a game of solitaire lead to creation of the periodic table? As students read the biography of Dmitri Mendeleev, they’ll begin to unpack how examining the same information (the elements) from a new perspective can lead to progress. In this case, how the game of solitaire inspired Mendeleev to carry a card deck of the elements with him everywhere he went—until he could piece the periodic table puzzle together. Most impressively, Mendeleev left room for others to add to and improve his work in the future.

Analyzing History at Different Scales

The way we construct history hinges on the scale we use to examine it. Zooming out to the scale of the Universe emphasizes the causal role of star formation in the abundance of the elements in the world today. On the other hand, zooming in to the last two hundred years of history highlights the rapidly evolving discipline of chemistry. Periodization determines the perspective we take on a particular event or process, which is why it is so important that we allow students to re-periodize history for themselves.

Scale Timelines and Periodization (Lesson 3.2)

Once students have read the biographies of Mendeleev and Curie, it’s time for them to analyze who and what influenced the thinking of those two great scientists. As students place their contributions in chronological order, they must divide the timeline into three distinct periods. Students must name each period based on some criteria for classification, and then justify their reasoning. Should we focus on shorter or longer periods of time when studying history? Why does it matter?

Contextualizing Our Findings

Periodization allows us to contextualize massive amounts of information. Inevitably, larger scales of analysis also trim away some of the causal and consequential minutiae to reveal overarching patterns and trends in history. Examining history in the context of a certain time frame changes the types of conclusions we draw. We need to provide students opportunities to construct history in this way. Causation is a reasoning tool that equips them with the evidence-based explanations and arguments they need to analyze the causes and consequences of past events.

Investigation 3 (Lesson 3.2)

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Our lesson on identifying historical significance. (Image Credit: Rachel Hansen)

One of the best ways I know to teach causation is by helping students identify historical significance. This is a skill we work to develop through Investigation 3. If students can identify an individual’s influence, they can begin to unpack how that particular individual caused short- and long-term changes later down the road. Both of the graphic organizers included in the activity’s worksheet aid students in their development of causal thinking skills.

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Curiosity Is Contagious

My outlook on life has changed since I started teaching the Big History Project course. My periodic table of the elements shirt is a staple in my wardrobe, and I am always looking to make connections across disciplines.

This summer, I took a trip to Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. I saw Upheaval Dome in a guidebook and assumed it was yet another pile of rocks in a road trip already filled with so many rocks. Enticed by a sign that said “A Mystery” on the trek to the dome, I quickly learned this wasn’t just any pile of rocks. In fact, teams of scientists across all kinds of disciplines have been looking at this formation differently than ever before. New geologic evidence suggests Upheaval Dome may have formed from a meteorite impact! I was standing on the edge of an impact crater! Looking at the same information (this pile of rocks) from different perspectives (geologist, cosmologist, physicist) paved the way for progress (a new impact crater theory).

As it turns out, science makes teaching history so much better.

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Image credits: All photos and illustrations by Rachel Hansen.

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.

One thought on “Yes, we learn about the periodic table in history. No, you’re not in the wrong class.

  1. It is very difficult to make them understand that the periodic table has not come automatically, it started from the air, water, earth, fire, vacuum. The most important thing is that Mendeleef kept some vacant position even if he started from atomic weight.

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