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Black River Big History Project: Asking the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions

Video Produced by Bob Berg, Michigan Media
By Rebecca Pierce

HOLLAND, Mich.—By looking at 13.8 billion years of history through scales of time and space, Black River Public School senior Vicente Bickel found his own place in the universe.

“It honestly did change my life,” he said. “The main reason for why this course got me thinking was the macro to the micro level of analysis. This class dives into history and science simultaneously getting closer and closer to the human experience.”

It’s been three years since Bickel took the Big History Project course at Black River, which has been offered to 9th graders for the past six years, and he’s still excited to talk about its impact. He wants to be an archaeologist.

“It had a really big impact on changing my whole mindset on education, on history and everything,” Bickel said.

The Big History project, developed by the University of Michigan, brings all subjects together in one course

“Big History” brings all subjects together in one course

This isn’t a social studies class about wars and world leaders. It’s much bigger. The description is mind-blowing: Students examine the Big Bang to contemporary civilization to what may happen, putting human existence in the context of the past, present and future.

“Never having been exposed to that much knowledge and history, I was overwhelmed with curiosity and passion for the material.”

Vicente Bickel
Senior at Black River Public School

In this course, instead of a linear telling of world events over time, students learn how everything is tied together through astronomy, biology, philosophy, history, psychology and anything else they discover along the way through billions of years.

The class is taught by Greg Dykhouse, a University of Michigan alumnus who grew up in Jenison, returned to his roots in West Michigan and has taught at Black River Public School since it opened in 1996. In 2011, he heard about the launch of a national program and requested it for his charter school.

“All good history classes will teach understanding,” he said. “What is the unique contribution of Big History? It’s looking at scale. We have our story at this level, but we’re also going to want to look at larger-scale situations.”

This class is an elective, but it’s not an easy A. Dykhouse pushes his students to do the work that historians do. “What do they do? They ask a really good question. The questions they ask inevitably are ‘how’ questions or ‘why’ questions.”

Black River (Michigan) Public School teaches the Big History project, developed by the University of Michigan

Understanding the past and the present with Big History

These questions are followed by research, observations, thesis statements and finally, supporting evidence and specific examples. That’s bolstered by intense class discussions, individual and group projects and trips to museums and other places to see and feel history. They do a lot of writing, too.

“One of the huge things that Big History hit on that I never got from a different history class is it analyzes our history,” senior Logan Henning said. “One of the morals is: You have to see our mistakes from history to change what we’re doing to make a big impact on our future. And that’s something no other classes in general, or other history classes, touch on.”

Like Bickel, the course helped Henning find his niche. He hopes to pursue a career in biomedical engineering or as a surgeon.

Other students feel enlightened, too. Ninth-grader Sydnie Heemstra wants to become a nurse. And 11th-grader Rafael Espinoza wants to be a music therapist. Another 12th grader, Yared Gordillo, who mentioned he would be the first in his family to earn a college degree, would like to be a dentist in his hometown of Holland.

Senior Jack Gasper said he learned about how much of a difference one person can make. “It definitely helped guide my journey through high school,” he said. “Looking back, it’s kind of cool to see how the one history course set the things that I’ve done since.”

U-M associate professor Bob Bain in the U-M School of Education is the academic adviser who designed the national curriculum, developed electronic resources and curated materials suitable for the class. Professor David Christian of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, developed the program, supported by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The course is offered in dozens of school districts across the country, including schools in Northville and Ann Arbor.

On any given day in his Black River School classroom, Dykhouse may be quoting lines from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” or holding up a record album from the 1980s. Or students might take a trip to Ann Arbor to visit three museums at U-M in one day.

“Never having been exposed to that much knowledge and history I was overwhelmed with curiosity and passion for the material,” Bickel said. “The course does an excellent job of helping its students handle the amount of information, separated into thresholds.”

“Personally, I am interested in anthropology, archaeology, and paleontology because there is so much that we do not know about our own history and even less about the rest of our planet and universe,” Bickel said.

Dykhouse says he believes that Big History will eventually become an integral part of K-12.

“The theme in the course is one of increasing complexity,” he said. “Where we leave the course at the end of the year will be the next new complexity, which we call the future. And we invite the students to articulate and identify the next new thing.”

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