Has the Scientific Revolution Ended? Debatable.

Jami McLing, BHP Teacher
Idaho, USA

Instinctively, teenagers can be argumentative. They think they’re always right and most don’t shy away from a verbal fight. However, their argument often lacks “bite” and consists of opinions fueled by emotion. The debate activity Has the Scientific Revolution Ended? from Lesson 8.3 provides a terrific opportunity for students to learn how to argue with purpose.


Photo courtesy of Jami McLing

Our students love the activity because it’s an excuse for them to practice their argumentation skills, and in the context of a juicy question. They’re challenged to think critically about questions that have seemingly obvious answers (like, “what counts as science?”) and consider their role in historical narratives.

This is the first time many of our students have debated so we are careful about how we set it up:

  1. Ask Questions: After introducing the debate question, groups answer a set of questions.
    a. How do you define a scientific revolution?
    b. What counts as science?
    c. What is a revolution?
    d. How do we know if we are in the midst of a revolution?
    e. How do we know when something in history began and ended?
  2. Research: Students spend a day gathering evidence to support their position using BHP’s claim testers—authority, evidence, logic, and intuition. We check in with each group frequently to remind and encourage them to support their claims with concrete evidence from the Big History site or by using credible outside sources. This is always a fun step because preconceived notions about a position can be changed, much to a student’s surprise.
  3. Debate: Each group gets 5 minutes to present their opening statement, rebuttal, and closing statement. Because this is the first time most of our students have been exposed to debating, we modify the debate format presented in Unit 8. Instead of giving 5-15 minutes for rebuttals, we give 20-25 minutes.
  4. Reflection: After the debate, students vote on which side made the best argument and write up a short reflection on why that side “won” and how they could’ve made their argument even stronger.

Not only does this activity help develop a student’s argumentative, research, and presentation skills, but it also provides an exciting opportunity for them to go head-to-head with their peers and battle it out. After all, who doesn’t love a good dose of healthy competition.

About the author: Jami McLing has been teaching history at her middle school in Idaho Falls, Idaho, since 2007. She has been teaching Big History since 2013. She teaches the year-long BHP course to eighth graders in two 50-minute classes per day.


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.


David Burzillo, BHP Teacher
Massachusetts, USA

For several years, I’ve asked my students to read Jared Diamond’s article “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” an excerpt from which can be found in Investigation 7. Discussing the eating habits and nutrition of early humans always raises a lot of questions for my students: How can we know what early humans ate? Is it different from what we eat today? Did they eat three meals a day? How much did they eat? These questions also give rise to some great discussion about the work that archaeologists and anthropologists do and the ways they can tease information out of the fossil record.


Cave painting, Algerian desert, by Gruban, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Left). Agricultural scenes in ancient Egypt, public domain. Lunch, public domain.

Discussing these issues can lead students to some great insights. Comparing sample diets of hunter-gatherers, early farmers, and modern humans in the Nutrition Hunt activity from Lesson 7.3 provides students with a concrete way to delve deeper. I asked my students to keep track of the food they ate on a particular day; they then calculated the calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat content of those foods.

Some students were struck by the fact that the typical forager diet provided more calories than that of early farmers. In comparing the sample modern-day diets consumed by members of the class, a number were struck by some significant calorie differences between male and female classmates. “Those are the guys who play sports,” said one, but another immediately chimed in: “The girls are athletes too! That can’t be driving the difference.”

This year was the first time I taught this activity, and I was pleased with how it went. A few tips: Students might need calculators to tally up calorie totals in each food category. Also, although you can do this activity without Internet connectivity (just share with students a printout of the Nutritional Information for School Lunch Program Foods, which is included in the activity PDF), my students found that the USDA Food Composition Database provided a nice complement. This database is searchable and provides nutrition info on over 180,000 foods.

This activity was a fun and relevant way to get students thinking about the connections between past and present through a topic they love talking about—food. If you teach Big History before lunch, be prepared for some complaints from students about how hungry the lesson has made them!

About the author: Dave Burzillo has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history in each class. He has 12-16 students in each class. Recently, Dave began offering an online BHP course in the summer.