DINNER’S READY! HUNTER-GATHERER EDITION

Scott Collins, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA

Finals have begun, which makes for even longer days, as does entering grades and completing all the other tasks that come with putting a bow on the semester. It’s dark as I leave school. I’m hungry, and the golden arches are shining brightly through my windshield. A quick drive through and two cheeseburgers and steaming-hot, salty fries are in a bag, sitting shotgun. A ready-made meal, just like that, awaiting my consumption. It hasn’t always been this easy. Believe it or not, there were times when you couldn’t order your groceries online and have them delivered to your door! Unit 6.3 of Big History features the Hunter-Gatherer Menu activity, which hearkens back to times when humans had to work much harder for a meal than we do today.

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Cheeseburger and fries by stu_spivak. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Hunter Gatherer Menu activity asks students to do research on foraging diets and the ways in which our foraging ancestors would have obtained the resources needed to maintain these diets. It asks them to abandon the mindset of today, when so many things are a smart-phone app away, and set themselves next to a campfire of 15,000 years ago with nothing but some tools and an ecosystem full of resources. What would they do then? How would they survive? This activity gets students thinking creatively about the true hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

As I introduce the activity, I ask students to quietly imagine that their desk isn’t a desk, but a downed tree, upon which they’re sitting. I ask them to visualize what the space around us would have been like 15,000 years ago. What would the terrain have been like? The plants? The animals? Would there have been water nearby? They might need to do some historical research about the area if they aren’t sure about its ecological or geological history. Based on their conclusions, they then create a menu including the resources that a hunter-gatherer would have been able to collect 15,000 years ago, at the very spot where our school is located.

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White-tailed deer by USDA photo by Scott Bauer, public domain., CC BY-SA 2.0. Wild blueberry bush by Paul VanDerWerf, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The activity allows students not only to put themselves in the minds of hunter-gatherers, but also to think about the history of the area and what it used to be like geographically and ecologically. This can be difficult for them at first, but a few prompts here and there and the creative juices begin to flow and simmer like a pot of white-tailed deer stew. As they get going and begin to truly adopt the hunter-gatherer mentality, students invariably create dishes that one might see at a five-star restaurant on Randolph Street, about 25 miles north in Chicago. As an extra-credit opportunity, I’ve even allowed students to prepare a dish from their menu on their own time and bring it in to share—a risky, but sometimes rewarding experience for the palate. Have fun with this activity and I assure you, it will be fruitful (see what I did there?).

About the author: Scott Collins is a high school science teacher in Lemont, IL. In addition to BHP, he teaches AP biology, honors biology, and integrated science. His school is on a semester system. Scott’s eleventh- and twelfth-grade BHP classes run about 85 minutes long and focus heavily on the science content. About 60 students per year join him on the 13.8-billion-year journey.

COMICS: NOT JUST FOR SUPERHEROES

Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

In September, I wrote about one of my favorite activities: Universe Comics. As comics are a recurring course activity, and many who teach Big History are somewhere around Unit 6 at this point in the school year, I thought it might be helpful to share how I approach the Evolution Comic activity from Lesson 6.0.

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Excerpt from It’s Alive! Universe Verse Book 2, by James Lu Dunbar.

Evolution Comic asks students to chronologically detail, in a single-page comic book template, the evolution of human life. They’re asked to include seven specific evolutionary steps in their work: LUCA, plants and animals, primates, apes (hominoids), great apes (hominids), bipedal primates (hominines), and humans (Homo sapiens).

Of all the comic activities, this one tends to be the hardest one for students to wrap their heads around; there are multiple variations of primates, and distinguishing among them in drawings can be difficult. For most students, explaining the progression from LUCA to plants and animals, and then from plants and animals to primates is pretty easy. However, once they’re asked to become more specific in their comic regarding hominoids, hominids, hominines, and Homo sapiens, students’ questions and confusion begin. Considering the definitions of these terms have changed over the years, it can be helpful to point students to websites that shed light on the differences between these terms:

Students should be familiar with the assignment (as this is their third and final comic activity in the course), but it’s always good to reinforce your expectation that they provide explanatory text with their drawings. I also tell my students to be as creative as they can be with their comics; after all, they’re supposed to be informative and entertaining!
The comic activities are a great way to formatively assess your students’ understanding of course material. The evolution of humans is an important and sometimes perplexing topic. What better way to ensure students fully understand the significance of the concept—in the BHP story of the Universe as well as humanity’s place in it?

About the author: The 2016/17 school year marks Bridgette’s fifth teaching BHP as a semester-long history course. 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.

Making Craters (and Messes!)

Dave Burzillo, BHP Teacher
Massachusetts, USA

Making Craters, in Lesson 5.4, is one of a series of new science activities recently added to Big History to engage student interest in science through experiment, observation, and data analysis. Lesson 5.4 focuses on the impact of cosmic collisions with Earth, and this hands-on activity asks students to make predictions about how the size, speed, and angle of meteorites (which are represented by rocks of varying size in this classroom experiment) might affect the characteristics of the craters they create.

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Giordano Bruno crater on the moon. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

My students worked in groups to make predictions about the impacts of small, medium, and large rocks. They then tested their predictions by dropping the rocks from different heights into pans of flour covered with cocoa powder. Students then observed and measured the “craters” that their “meteorites” created, and compared their observations with their predictions.

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My students enjoyed the activity and really got into measuring the depths and diameters of the craters. They also enjoyed messing up the room a bit—this activity led to some dirty desks and floor space! Most found confirmation in their predictions that larger rocks would create larger craters, but there was a wider range of results when it came to the impacts of angle and speed. Some found that their medium-sized rocks created bigger craters than the larger rocks, and they concluded that the shape of the rock influenced these results.

This activity was a good way to introduce our study of the dinosaur extinction, and students had fun doing it. It was worth the clean-up!

About the author: Dave 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.