A big idea

Innovative social studies course at Notre Dame Prep helps fuse the IB-MYP and IB-DP programs and takes students on a journey from the Big Bang to the future.

A few years ago, Michael Carman, a social studies teacher at Notre Dame Prep, was researching possible new courses within the social studies curriculum. Department chair John Smith said the school was looking for something that was going to help bridge the gap in social studies between the International Baccalaureate MYP Program and the IB Diploma Program.

"We sent Michael to Chicago for a seminar about this newer program called The Big History Project we had read about," Smith said. "He was super excited about what he found out. He came back to us and really was the one who got the whole ball rolling here with the course."

It wasn't too long after that Chicago trip that NDP implemented the BHP, which covers 13.7 billion years of history, starting with the Big Bang and ending in the future. According to the developers of the course, it "weaves insights from many disciplines to form a single story that helps us better understand people, civilizations, and how we are connected to everything around us."

Carman, who also blogs regularly for the BHP, said the innovative online course was the perfect fit for Notre Dame at the 9th-grade level. 

"BHP is based upon many of the same core ideas as the MYP, including the use of driving questions and inquiry, development of learning skills, interdisciplinarity, and thinking about things from a global context," he said. "Really, these are best practices for teachers, and any curriculum could utilize them. For our specific purposes, however, the course gets students who are new to high school and may even be new to the MYP to approach learning from an inquiry-driven, skills-based, interdisciplinary perspective."

Now in its second year within the NDP social studies curriculum, BHP is hitting its stride with students and teachers.

"Pete Riley and I are teaching it to freshmen this year," said Carman, who's in his eighth year at NDP. "It replaced our old World Cultures curriculum, although the course name officially remains the same. Students really seem to enjoy it. Initially some were confused about going all the way back to the Big Bang rather than starting at the beginning of human civilizations, but by the end of the year many agreed that looking at the entire scale of the universe helped them to better appreciate how we got to where we are now and where we might be headed next."

The field of "Big History" was first debuted at the university level by David Christian, a college professor in Australia. Eventually, Microsoft founder Bill Gates happened to see Christian's college class on Great Courses, an online education resource, and loved the way it fused all academic disciplines to learn about the universe and world. In fact, Gates was so impressed, he wanted to make it available to as many people as possible. The Gates Foundation eventually funded further development of the course and a more accessible online version is now available free to schools anywhere in the world.

"One of the best things about the BHP curriculum is how flexible it is and how it allows for differentiation within classes," Carman said. "Its readings have a switchable lexile [reading] level, which allows complicated concepts to be accessible to all groups of students, while still providing the appropriate amount of challenge for all. People of any age, in fact, can create a 'lifelong learner' account at bighistoryproject.com and begin exploring the course themselves."

Going forward, Carman notes that the course likely will get a few tweaks, but at the moment, there aren't any plans to teach it to other grades at Notre Dame. However, some of BHP's features are being incorporated in NDPMA's middle school. 

"LeAnne Schmidt and Felicia Guest at the middle school actually have adapted many of the aspects of BHP, such as the 'three-close-reads' process, for use within their own classrooms," he said.

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.

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About Notre Dame 
Notre Dame is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named Michigan's best 50 Catholic high school three of the last four years (Niche.com). Notre Dame's lower and middle schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All Notre Dame schools have been authorized by International Baccalaureate as "World Schools" and the entire institution is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers. It is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org