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Lately I find myself reaching for books about the complicated relationship between humanity and nature.

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Big History Project is getting bigger

This back-to-school season marks a major milestone for the Big History Project. After a successful targeted pilot program, it is now poised to expand and serve more than 3,000 students in 5 countries. After next year the hope is that the program gets even bigger – with free, online access for educators worldwide.


The Big History Project began a few years ago after I took an online version of the college-level Big History course. I was so impressed with the structure and approach of big history that I got excited by the opportunity to offer it to a broader audience.

Big history is different from other history courses in that it covers our complete 13.7 billion years of shared history—going all the way back to the Big Bang.  The course then progresses to cover the development of stars, elements, plants, life, humans and our modern-day civilization. These “threshold moments” all share common themes and patterns that are the foundation for the course. To understand the similarities, differences and implications of these thresholds, students have to use many different disciplines spanning cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology and social studies.

By connecting different areas of knowledge into one unified story, big history provides a framework for learning about anything and everything. I really like how the course challenges students to wrestle with big questions—questions like how different time scales affect our perspective on history, how language transformed humanity, and what it means to be human. It’s a course I believe everyone should take.

The college-level course was originated by David Christian, an historian now at Macquarie University in Australia. After I talked with David, we set out to create a free, online version of the course for U.S. and Australian high schools. Our goals were pretty simple: by sharing “the big picture” and challenging students to explore the relation­ships between key events over time, we could help students develop the critical thinking skills needed to excel in more advanced study and to better understand our environment, culture, civilization and the world we live in. For more background on the course, see David Christian’s TED talk.

Working with David and Bob Bain from the University of Michigan, we set off to develop a program from scratch, one that could ultimately be offered to everyone. This past year, the Big History Project’s high-school curriculum was used successfully by eight pilot schools in the United States and Australia. These schools helped us think through all aspects of the program—from the content and assessment strategy to delivering the program online. The feedback we’ve received from the eight pilot schools has been invaluable. It’s been quite an adventure; creating a new course, especially one that covers 13.7 billion years, is a challenge. But the teachers, schools and ultimately the students really responded and have helped to put together a great program. 

So far, we’ve developed a complete curriculum and launched a website designed for teachers and students that houses all the content and teacher support materials necessary to deliver the course.  The site is populated with more than 300 custom-designed and curated pieces of content. The content includes everything from infographics and texts to animations. Our approach is to validate how to best combine the content with specific formats to engage students and help them understand the content. The course is built for 9thth and 10 graders, but other grades can also use a lot of the material.

The content is all built to align to the core Big History narrative. But it’s flexible enough to work in a wide variety of settings including STEM environments and classes focused on English Language Arts. This year we have also added new turnkey lessons and projects to the course to ease planning and delivery for teachers. For example, each of the course’s 10 units now has an “Investigation,” which challenges students to research a range of texts and other information to create and defend a point of view on a specific topic or theme.

We have been getting a lot of interest and feedback on the program, which is helping us make it better. For example, we are specifically responding to questions about how to align the course with common core state standards by increasing the use of texts and more specific activities aligned to the new ELA standards for 9thth and 10 grades. We are also confronting the challenges of delivering the course in environments that have intermittent Internet access by making the content accessible in a wide variety of formats, and creating lessons plans that don’t depend on internet connectivity.

In the future we will be web-enabling the student assessments and working with the data we see from the pilots to help schools determine how to best deliver the course based on their specific learning objectives, student types and teacher profiles. In 2013/14 our hope is that any school or teacher could come to the site, learn about big history and ultimately configure a course that’s right for them.

We saw some great results this year, with improvements in students’ perceptions of their ability to excel in the future, their desire to go further in subjects like history and science, and their content knowledge about Big History. One of the most encouraging signs was that students said big history was really teaching them to think and not just memorize things.

I want to thank our pilot school partners for their tireless support and commitment. They helped us on all facets of the course. It has been inspiring to see the program develop, and we owe it all to these schools and teachers:

  1. San Diego High School, San Diego, CA
  2. Northville High School, Northville, MI
  3. Lakeside School, Seattle, WA
  4. Brooklyn Latin School, Brooklyn, NY
  5. Greenhills School, Ann Arbor, MI
  6. Rivers School, Weston, MA
  7. Nossal High School, Victoria, Australia
  8. Narara Valley High School, Narara, Australia

It’s a pleasure to welcome more than 50 additional schools to the pilot program during 2012-13. Our goal with this stage of the project is to test and validate our ability to scale the course, while we further refine certain aspects such as the online experience and content. We are adopting a cluster strategy, working with groups of similar schools or with regional groups so that teachers can work with and support one another. I want to thank these 50 schools and teachers for their support of and participation in the next wave of the program.

While the pilot program is closed for now, we will want to add more schools for 2013-14. If your school might be interested, email info@bighistoryproject.com, and watch for an update soon on how to become a part of that wave of schools. Meanwhile, anyone can use the course components and other information available for free at the Big History website. There are also some samples of the content itself available here. While these pieces of content were built for the Big History Project, any teacher can use them.