WE USED TO BELIEVE THAT?! CHANGING VIEWS OF THE UNIVERSE

Jami McLing, BHP Teacher
Idaho, USA

Why do our views or our understanding of something sometimes change over time? Is it because we get new information? Is it because of personal experiences? A combination of both? Or something else entirely? When I first introduce the Changing Views Timeline activity from Lesson 2.1, my middle school students are amazed that there was a time when we didn’t believe the Sun was the center of our Solar System. This activity ignites all kinds of great conversation about when and why our understanding of the Universe has changed and will continue to change over time.

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The Changing Views Timeline activity serves two purposes. First, it asks students to read about different scientists’ views of the Universe, which helps them better understand how thinking about the Universe has advanced over time. Second, it deepens students’ understanding of how timelines can be used as analytical tools when studying history. Students will get the opportunity to read articles about great scientists such as Copernicus, Newton, and Hubble. Then they’ll compare those scientists and create a timeline that includes information about each scientist’s birth, death, major discoveries, and who or what influenced their thinking.

In my classroom, we do this as a whole-group activity. Instead of having students create individual timelines, we create one giant timeline that is displayed for the rest of the school year. Students are put into groups and assigned a scientist. They read the corresponding article and work with their group to find the relevant information about their scientist. Then they share out. Each group reports what they learned and adds their information to the class timeline.

The most important part of this assignment is the story arc it creates and the discussion we have about questions like: How does one scientist’s thinking progress to the next? When did those views and understandings start to change? Why?

By creating the timeline, students can see how the story of how our views has changed over time. It also helps them see how each of these historical figures used observation and data as well as already-established information to create a new model of the Universe—which in turn has led to our current understanding.

This is a great activity to spark discussion and get students ready for the View of the Universe debate in the same lesson, as well as to address the Unit 2 Investigation question: “How and why do individuals change their minds?”

About the author: Jami McLing has been teaching history at her middle school in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for over 10 years. She has been teaching BHP since 2013. She teaches the year-long BHP course to eighth graders in two 50-minute classes per day.

Engaging with Experts in the BHP Teacher Community

Casey Lever, BHP Teacher
Queensland, Australia

Like everyone’s interaction with BHP, mine is evolving. But unlike a lot of the incredibly switched-on people who teach Big History, it takes me time to learn new things. Recently, I’ve begun to pay attention to the BHP Exchanges, reading them and even participating in a couple. In case, like me, you weren’t aware that these events were taking place, I should explain that an Exchange is an official monthly opportunity for Big History teachers to interact with a visiting expert in the online BHP Teacher Community. Guest experts typically provide an article they’ve written about a specific topic relevant to Big History, and then respond to questions posted by teachers over the days that follow.

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Dr. Bryan J. Mendez joins the BHP June Exchange

I’m sure that sounds worthy and educational. But it’s actually a lot more than that. Just consider: One random evening, sitting at my desk here in suburban Queensland, Australia, I got to ask Dr. Bryan J. Mendez, astronomer and public education specialist at Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, a question about the value of space exploration for the human race. Wow. I’m not sure what other people think, but that seems like an amazing thing to be doing with my time.

There was definitely a nerdy kind of thrill in posting a question and getting an answer from a genuine expert, and I encourage you to try it and see what I mean. Since that evening, though, I sense that there are more reasons for why it is something good to be doing.

We are living through sharp times. Right now, it feels like the assumptions of scholarship that underpin Western civilization are under attack from all sides. Objective reality doesn’t seem to be rating as highly as it used to. Those with strong opinions and intuitions, even if based on fallacies or distortions of truth, seem to have become influential. Being skeptical about absolutely everything is all the rage. Indeed, logic and reason and the authority of those with genuine expertise are frequently dismissed, while the politics of rage holds all of us in its fierce and fascinating grip.

It’s a big claim, that posting questions to an expert on Yammer is to fight for the rightful place of experts at the heart of scholarship, but that’s exactly what it feels like to me.

Being able to test my understanding with those who apply all their intellectual rigor to profound questions is a privilege that I really want to take advantage of. After three years of teaching this course, knowledge doesn’t feel like a noun any more. It feels active, not static, and raises all sorts of “doing” words in my mind, like probing and questioning, interrogating and connecting. My awareness of the constructedness of knowledge has been heightened, and I realize that textbooks and other written documents are only the beginning of learning.

But it’s not just about me. I’m also modeling what I want my students to do and how I want them to think. When I inserted my interaction with Dr. Mendez into classroom conversation this week, a small and insignificant moment became a big and powerful moment. Twenty-four fifteen-year-old young women heard that it was standard practice to communicate with a leading astronomer and think of interesting things to ask him. What would you have asked? I wanted to know. They had plenty of ideas. And so, next time I will ask my students what to ask before the Exchange. I’ve seen other teachers do just that, and now I’ve realized why.

Participating in the Exchanges is not just about Big History teachers and our students. Academics are well aware that it’s important for them to engage with the community. A compellingly titled recent article, “How Universities Can Earn Trust and Share Power in the Bitter Post-Truth Era” (Roberts & Becker, 2017), has made this very point, arguing “it has always been incumbent on … experts to engage with the public – to share knowledge and to ensure that the way in which knowledge is being driven forward benefits as many people as possible.” Big History Exchanges offer academics an opportunity to reach out to those of us working with young people and engage and influence what we know and talk about in the classroom.

So next time you are thinking about participating in an Exchange, go ahead. To read, to consider, to comment, to ask: these things might seem small but in fact you are doing big, important work. You are a conduit for providing our students access to a source of cutting-edge disciplinary knowledge; you are modeling to them how our understanding of complexity is deepened; and you have become a vital part of the process of collective learning.


Reference

Roberts, A., & Becker, S. (2017, May 4). “How Universities Can Earn Trust and Share Power in the Bitter Post Truth Era.” Retrieved from The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/how-universities-can-earn-trust-and-share-power-in-the-bitter-post-truth-era-76653.


Note: The next BHP Exchange will span September 6th-8th and feature Learning Scientist Rachel Phillips. Rachel recently wrote us a blog post on the power of Lead Learning. Her Exchange will focus on questions you have related to implementing a “lead learner” stance in your BHP classroom!


About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. This is her third year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long core history/science subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.

SKYPING WITH THE VATICAN: BIG HISTORY, FAITH, ALIENS, MULTIVERSES, AND BEYOND

Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

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Using the telescope at the Vatican Observatory © Tony Gentile/Reuters/Corbis

As teachers, we all know that technology can be both a blessing and curse, which is why when we organize a Skype session with someone, especially someone important, we hold our breath, cross our fingers, and say a little prayer that it all goes well. This was my experience last fall (which I hope to repeat again this year) when I was fortunate enough to coordinate a Skype session with Brother Robert Macke, Keeper of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. I teach Big History at an all-girls Catholic high school in Louisiana, and every year, my students are extremely interested in and often confused about how they, as Catholics, could believe in the Big Bang and evolution. They’ve also had a lot of questions about how creation— as explained in Genesis—fits together with evolutionary science fit. I addressed some of these issues in a previous blog post about Big History, faith, and science in September 2014.

When you’re planning to Skype or FaceTime with an expert, you definitely want to make sure that all of the technical aspects of the session are glitch-free on your end. I coordinated with the tech department at our school to make sure that we would have a reliable connection, and that everything worked smoothly, from establishing a connection to making a call that everyone would be able to hear, with video we would all be able to see. To help ensure a great session, I suggest you test your call with the person with whom you’ll be talking. This will give you the opportunity to work out any kinks in their set-up as well as yours.

Technical issues aside, the experience was unforgettable for myself and all the students who attended. In preparation for speaking with Brother Macke, all BHP and theology students wrote two to three questions that they would like answered regarding the topic of faith and science. These questions ranged from how the Catholic Church views the prospect of alien life in the Universe to the location of heaven and how likely it is that there are multiverses. Students were treated to an introductory video made by Brother Macke about the history of the Vatican Observatory, after which we initiated the Skype call and students began asking their questions.

I was amazed at the questions that were asked, the level of which indicated that many students had contemplated these topics and put a lot of thought into their queries. The question we opened with was a wonderful way to begin: “My granddad thinks aliens could be the devil…what do you think?” Other questions included: “Do you think that there could be other intelligent life forms that believe in God (the same God as ours)?” “Have you ever questioned your faith as you studied science?” “How does science help with our understanding of the creation story?” “Would heaven be somewhere above the Universe?”

In answering these questions, Brother Macke was patient, personable, and extremely knowledgeable. The students walked away with a better appreciation of the compatibility of faith and science but also left with more questions, which is obviously one of the core goals of Big History.

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.