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Big History - our history, our present & future discussed using science

Written by Ben Newsome on May 6th, 2016.      0 comments

I was running a home school science workshop on electrical circuits yesterday and during the session I got into a discussion with one of the kids parents around what their teenage children could be reading beyond standard classroom texts. As we explored this further it became clear that the real issue was that whilst the text books they were using were scientifically correct and beautifully laid out, it came down to that the language itself was just too formal to be engaging to teenagers. This type of writing of course is understandable considering that the aim of the texts was to inform and guide with facts, but unfortunately in doing so the feedback from the teens was that the classroom texts just didn't capture their imagination; for a couple of kids they even found them boring despite the author's and illustrators best intentions. The bottom line - there was just no compelling narrative to capture the kids attention.

My first thought as a quick remedy was to suggest an old favourite of mine: Bill Bryson's 'A short history of nearly everything'. Nominated for the Samuel Johnson prize, this book takes the reader through the initial period of star formation after the Big Bang to discussions about the Earths formation, our atmosphere, microbiology, evolution and more. Importantly the writing is story-based; you can read about feuds between North American paleontologists, the struggle to reach our deepest ocean floors and why we even bother, interviews with astronomers on finding supernovae from backyard observatories, the deft diplomacy Edmund Halley used to get Isaac Newton to publish Principia after a falling out with Robert Hooke, the race to find the impact crater from the meteorite that contributed to the demise of dinosaurs and even learn about the opinions people held on Edwin Hubble and the weird fixations exhibited by Carolus Linnaeus in naming plant structures. Perfectly written in plain language and with good humor, on reading it you can't help but think that this book should be part of the reading list for every high school student world wide. It's not just a science book, it's filled with political intrigue, big personalities and interesting examples on just how difficult it can be for a scientists to change long held beliefs, even amongst their peers. My print edition was published in 2003 so the science is slightly outdated in some areas but I know the kindle edition was out in 2010 so I suspect that it was updated a little bit (hopefully!). Well worth having a look anyway!

Bill Brysons A Short History of Everything
Bryson, B. (2003)
A short history of everything. Transworld Publishers, London

Bill Bryson's book is actually a version of a narrative known as "
Big History". What's Big History all about? It's an attempt by noted academics and well known authors to pull together information across all the sciences into a continuous story that begins at the Big Bang and works its way until now, whereby each chapter builds upon knowledge raised previously. In threading these chapters together, the reader is taken through a journey where a deeper understanding of how the sciences are interlinked and how natural events and human discoveries throughout history have impacted upon today's society. Because the information is presented in a timeline rather than discreet chapters, the reader can follow how the presented ideas work together and make their own linkages in the process. More importantly, as historical events are filled with drama and personalities you can find yourself learning about why a certain discovery came into being, where and when the thought arose and the impact on subsequent events. In many ways, it reminds me of role playing strategy computer games I grew up with as a kid where you guided people through history so they could survive whatever millennia threw at them (remember Civilization and Populus for instance?).

The only issue with the above book is that teachers need to distill the relevant information out of the book to create lessons that fit the science curriculum. The good news is that there is a global movement to address STEM using Big History and there are now plenty of web-based resources on hand that could help support you should this be of interest. It would be worth checking out the Big History Project which has a strong following and even stronger backing. Developed by David Christian of Macquarie University as a tertiary subject, it now has turned into a non-profit organisation designed for teachers and students around the world with support from Bill Gates. Filled with animations and well-structured lessons for learners, the aim is to mesh STEM with History at a curriculum level; as a teacher it might be worth you having a look at the developed units of work and support resources and to consider whether this might be something that could be offered as an extra subject at your school.

So, in thinking about the initial question raised by the parent at the homeschooling group, one of the best ways to address waning interest for teenagers in science is to give them a reason to care to look further in the first place. Lets be honest, no-one really likes reading a bunch of facts that have to be remembered to complete a worksheet or exam. All of us want to be inspired. We need to be convinced that gaining knowledge is worth the effort. As science educators its worth searching beyond classroom texts to find information sources that have been written deliberately to give meaning and context, not just pretty pictures or rules to remember. Sure, textbooks are fine but I think you'd find it hard to find people recommending textbooks as a good read at a party! 

Happy teaching,


Ben Newsome
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