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PNW launches Big History Project, which unites the humanities and the sciences

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HAMMOND — Have you ever thought about how the universe began? Ever peered into the sky and wondered about the matter and energy that make up the world?

Six years ago, Bob Bain, an associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Education, created something he called the Big History Project, which focused on that broad view of history, covering 13.7 billion years from the Big Bang to modern times, and bringing it to the classroom.

The Big History Project is a joint effort among teachers, scholars, scientists and their supporters to approach studying the history of the world from a multitude of academic disciplines.

Dubbed a "social studies course that runs on jet fuel," the Big History Project is inspired by the work of notable historian David Christian and supported by businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates.

Bain designed the course, which seeks to help secondary and college students identify patterns and connections in history to help them understand people and civilizations as well as the science and social science of the world we live in.

Bain, working along with Bob Regan, the educator director of Bill Gates' Catalyst 3 (bgc3 LLC), were at Purdue University Northwest last month to kick off the Big History Project in Indiana. 

PNW's dean of the College of Humanities, Education and Social Science and history professor, Elaine Carey, was on hand to talk about the project and what it will mean to Purdue students as well as K-through-12 educators and students in Northwest Indiana.

"This initiative is highly valuable to teachers as well as students, because it marries the humanities and the sciences, bringing together the complexity and interrelationship of disciplines," Carey said.

"Through these projects, students begin to understand contemporary issues such as the universe, the solar system, the environment, agriculture, trade, industry and globalization, which are particularly relevant in an area such as Northwest Indiana."

Carey said they are not talking about revising the way history is taught but expanding it.

"It's about expanding different approaches, techniques and methodologies to teaching history," she said.

"Big History focuses on teaching about scale. For example, how was gold created and how did it become the basis of early finance? Or, how do microbes have an impact on our present society, economy and environment?

"Big History embraces other disciplines in the sciences and social sciences to consider big and enduring questions that students and teachers explore. The readings and approaches are different for a class offered at the middle school level to that at a high school or college level."

In addition, Bain said students will do a considerable amount of reading and writing in the class. 

Next fall, PNW will offer its first big history class — HIS3900 Big History: The History of Everything, which will be taught by Wendy St. Jean in the Department of History and Philosophy.

Carey said PNW also hopes to develop a Professional Learning Community for next school year with local high school teachers who can begin teaching Big History in their classrooms. She said it would first be a pilot program in the high schools and middle schools.

"Through these projects, students begin to understand contemporary issues such as the universe, the solar system, the environment, agriculture, trade, industry and globalization, which are particularly relevant in an area such as Northwest Indiana." — Elaine Carey, PNW's dean of the College of Humanities, Education and Social Science and history professor

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.

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