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Starting with a bang

Big History Course Structure


Big History takes students on a 13.7 billion year journey, from the Big Bang to modern day and ultimately the future. It is designed as a yearlong, interdisciplinary course targeting 9th and 10th graders. It weaves evidence and insights from many scientific and historical disciplines into a single, accessible historical narrative.

The Big History course is broken down into two parts across ten teaching units. Each unit includes between 30-50 a la carte pieces of content that work together to achieve specific learning objectives and concepts.

Each of the ten units also includes an investigation, a single question to contextualize the study in that unit. Each investigation is accompanied by specially curated content designed to lead students through the exploration and challenge them to create and defend a point of view. In parallel, the content unveils the historical narrative which fosters continued growth and understanding of the course’s core concepts. This interconnection between the narrative and investigation is designed to promote literacy across disciplines and content types - two key elements of the Common Core standards.

Big History Course Guide can be tailored to fit a wide range of environments and learning objectives.

The five units in Part 1 look at the creation of the Universe and how the elements generated by the Big Bang led to the evolution of life on Earth.

Part 1 - Formations and Early Life

Unit 1 takes a look at Big History and how it differs from other courses. Students investigate scales of space and time, and read origin stories that have emerged throughout human history. The process of critical inquiry is introduced as students learn how scientific and historical discoveries have merged to become a modern, scientific origin story.

Unit 1 – What is Big History?

Unit 2 introduces the concept of claim testers, as students develop skills for evaluating and interpreting information across multiple disciplines. Students apply this fundamental skill when they explore how our views of the universe have changed over time, evolving through the works of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Hubble and others, eventually leading to the current view of the Big Bang.

Unit 2 – The Big Bang

Stars were the first complex, stable entities in the Universe, and they have the capacity to generate energy for millions or even billions of years. The first stars produced many of the chemical elements on the periodic table. In Unit 3 students learn how the life and death of stars provided the chemical diversity for even greater complexity.

Unit 3 – Stars and Elements

Unit 4 introduces students to our Solar System and Earth, to learn how gravity helped separate floating ‘leftover’ matter by density. This process formed all the planets in our solar system. Earth was uniquely positioned at just the right distance from the Sun and composed of diverse elements, which proved ideal for generating the circumstances for greater and greater complexity.

Unit 4 – Our Solar System and Earth

Defining life can be difficult. What conditions enabled life to prosper in so many diverse forms? In Unit 5 students tackle these complex questions as they chart the journey of life on Earth, noting six ‘mini-thresholds’ where life demonstrated distinct new characteristics. They also explore the biosphere and the dynamic, sometimes catastrophic relationship between life and Earth.

Unit 5 – Life

The five units in Part 2 explore the development of humanity, and the impact our unique species has had on the world - and may have on the future.

Part 2 - Humans

Humans are unusual. We walk upright and build cities, we travel around the world and communicate across the globe in an instant, and we alone can build machines and invent medicines. Why can we do these things? What makes us so special? Most people give our big brains all the credit, which is only part of the story. In Unit 6 students learn how foraging humans prospered and formed communities, and explore the uniquely human ability to preserve, share, and build upon each other’s ideas to learn collectively.

Unit 6 – Early Humans

For almost 200,000 years humans lived as foragers, consuming energy and resources in their natural forms wherever they could find them. Then, around 11,000 years ago, independent human communities developed agriculture, which led to the formation of towns, cities, states, and empires. Wherever agriculture flourished, humans clustered together in denser and larger populations, stockpiled resources, and developed complex infrastructures. Farming radically transformed almost every aspect of human society.

Unit 7 – Agriculture and Civilization

Today we live in a global society, but this wasn’t always the case. Innovation and commerce played important roles in the expansion process. As trade routes grew and civilizations prospered, an increasingly large and complex exchange network carried new ideas, materials, crops, diseases, and people from continent to continent. In Unit 8 students think about where, when, how, and why the world got so interconnected and how new interactions between nations and peoples led to intense conflict, growth and even greater advances in collective learning.

Unit 8 – Expansion and Interconnection

With the increased volume and diversity of global exchange, commerce and collective learning accelerated. Competitive markets formed. And with the discovery of fossil fuels, technological innovation surged and consumption of natural resources intensified. Humans came to control so much of the planet’s energy that, for the first time in Earth’s history, a single species began to dominate the biosphere. In Unit 9 students will explore these developments and think about the challenges that acceleration brought and where it will lead us.

Unit 9 – Acceleration

Big History is an unfinished story. In the final unit, students put everything they have learned together and use it to consider the future. They will apply Big History concepts and ideas to address questions about what life will be like in the future, how humans will use innovation to meet our growing energy needs with limited natural resources, and what role students and their peers will play in shaping the future, among others.

Unit 10 – The Future


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