In partnership with Bill Gates, the Big History Project gets even bigger
The celebrated release of Windows 8 from Microsoft wasn’t the only announcement involving Bill Gates last week. Lost amid the hoopla surrounding the new operating system was an invitation for teachers everywhere to participate in an expansion of the Big History Project, an educational initiative sponsored by Gates himself (not in connection with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).
The Big History Project is building on the instruction of David Christian, a professor of history at Macquarie University in Sydney. Professor Christian first developed his course on big history for his college students. But with the support of an inspired Gates, along with a small team of designers, educators, and institutions like the University of Michigan, the Big History Project has been brought to life for high school students and their teachers everywhere.
As Gates highlights in The Gates Notes, the project focuses on the 13.7 billion year history of the universe, from the Big Bang to today, “with a goal of revealing common themes and patterns that help students better understand people, civilizations and our place in the universe.” Over the past two years, the Big History Project has been piloted in more than 80 schools in states like California, Michigan, Washington, New York, Missouri, Iowa, and Florida, to name a few. The pilot effort has been working to refine the curriculum and its online components, and with last week’s announcement, the project is now available to an increasing number of educators, all for free.
Big History’s content is all online and includes the kinds of resources you would expect to find in any curriculum leveraging today’s new media environment—video lectures, animations, texts, infographics, and more. Like other digital efforts, the expectation is that a “variety of formats helps to keep the course exciting and engaging while also helping students to absorb the material.” In so doing, the project intends to foster knowledge across a range of disciplines—from the humanities to hard sciences like physics and chemistry—along with critical thinking and literacy skills like those highlighted in the Common Core Standards being implemented across the country.
The pilot effort during the past two years suggests these engagement and learning outcomes may be possible. As Gates notes:
Students in our pilot program generally report a much higher level of confidence relative to work in more specific science and history courses, and our evaluation of student work suggests strong growth in some key areas—like literacy skills. These outcomes are core to the course. Ultimately we want big history to provide a strong foundation for students, equipping them with the skills and knowledge needed to excel in more advanced courses.
But the project and the curriculum also have a larger goal: challenging students to “think about how they can impact the future, and their role in the Universe, on this Earth, and in their community.” As the sample content highlights, Big History seeks to establish “a framework for this conversation, encouraging students to apply big history concepts and ideas to address questions about life in the coming years, how humans will innovate to meet our growing needs, and the role students and their peers play in shaping the future.”
In the five days following its launch, the new Windows 8 operating system sold more than 14 million copies. That’s likely more than the number of educators who have signed up for the Big History Project during the same period. Given the enthusiasm of the former Microsoft CEO (and current Chairman), along with the many others behind Big History, it hardly seems to matter.
For more on Big History and why humans are so special, watch the following TED talk from Professor Christian: