MAINTAINING THE THROUGH LINE

Garry Dagg, BHP Teacher
Vasse, Australia

19156085084_17eb54d0c9_o.jpg

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.

14486519161_d6d31c5e7f_k.jpg

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.

MINDING THE GAP: WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “DEVELOPMENT LEVEL”?

Dave Burzillo, BHP Teacher
Massachusetts, USA

Economics is a discipline that offers amazing tools for understanding the impact of acceleration in the modern world. The Gapminder Card Sort in Lesson 10.1 is a great conversation starter about many of these impacts, including economic development, modernization, and inequality. This makes the activity an excellent way to introduce issues critical to exploring where the human race might be headed.

gapminder1.png

Gapminder World Map graph. Source: www.gapminder.org. CC BY 4.0.

Students are broken into groups, given 16 country cards, and asked to rank the countries in order of development. Students are deliberately not told what “developed” means; they need to wrestle with the idea in their groups. They then need to do the ranking based on what they already know—or think they know—about the countries! Next, each group shares its rankings with the class and explains the criteria it used. As you can imagine, this leads to some very interesting discussion and debate, as the criteria chosen are not always predictable.

Once that discussion is complete, each group is then given a graph that ranks the world’s countries based on life expectancy and income level. Each group can then use the graph to locate and circle the 16 countries and check the accuracy of their rankings. Studying the graph can be revelatory: “There are countries where people make more money than Americans? Where is Lichtenstein?” “The Japanese live longer than Americans, but make a little less. That sounds good to me.” The graph’s colors and bubbles provide a visual way of comparing a country’s population size, continent, income, and life expectancy, and this always leads the discussion in a myriad of new directions.

The activity is based on the work of Hans Rosling. Students can visit his gapminder.org website and explore his data library and watch a short video—200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes—to explore further the creative presentation of statistics.

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.