MAINTAINING THE THROUGH LINE

Garry Dagg, BHP Teacher
Vasse, Australia

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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.”

HELLO? IS ANYONE OUT THERE?

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.

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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.

ENVISIONING OUR PLANET’S FUTURE

Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

What is our place within this vast Universe? How can we make the world a better place? These are two questions at the heart of Big History. Two activities that address these questions are Lesson 10.1’s Visions of the Future and Lesson 10.2’s The Future of Our Planet. They help students realize a current problem in the world might get worse if their generation doesn’t act to solve  it.

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The setting Sun from the International Space Station. Credit: Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center. Public domain.

In the beginning of the course, students choose a current problem the world is facing and try to imagine what the consequences would be if this problem continued for another 25 years and then another 100 years. Then, at the end of the course, they attempt to find solutions to that problem. As students work in groups to help solve this problem, they brainstorm solutions and come up with a plan to either eliminate the issue altogether or curb the problem.

A big part of student formation  at our school is community service, with each student required to complete at least 20 hours per year. As I’m sure many schools have similar programs, this activity would fit well with organizing a service learning project for your students’ local community, the state, country, or the entire world.

Although students might begin to think that their place in the Universe is incredibly small when compared to the 13.8-billion-year history they’ve just studied, it is extremely important to teach them that they can make a difference. They can change the world for the better, and by coming up with a plan of action in this activity, perhaps they’ll be encouraged to follow through on their vision of the future.

About the author: Bridgette has been teaching BHP as a semester-long history course since 2012. She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.