Last month, freshmen at Dominican University of California spent a night stargazing with the help of 20 amateur astronomers from San Francisco. The night under the stars was part of their academic year, in which they will study the history and evolution of the universe.
This emerging approach to teaching is called Big History, and it is a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the origins of the universe and the complexity of its development, from the Big Bang to the future of the planet, mixing topics that at many colleges would be covered separately in courses on biology, physics and philosophy, among other fields.
About two decades ago, the term "Big History" was coined by David Christian, a professor of history at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia. In 1991, he wrote a paper in The Journal of World History making a case for that curricular idea.
Dominican officials describe their offering as an intellectual experience appropriate for the 21st century. They say their approach is unique because every freshman, except for those in the honors program, will have to take the course. It is only the second year that Dominican has offered such a program.
"It is unique because it is more than one Big History course," said Mojgan Behmand, director of general education and the first year experience at Dominican. “We look at Big History through the lens of a discipline, and our coursework is based on the collective wisdom of 35 faculty members."
Half of the course precedes human history, Behmand said. Other universities have offered Big History before, she said, but only as a single course.
At Dominican, students will learn Big History in a first-year seminar in which they will learn about the life cycles of stars, the emergence of life, the Industrial Revolution, and sustainability, among other topics. In the next semester, they will have a chance to examine some issues more closely through a specific area of study, like religion, sex and gender, or philosophy.
The program will be more specialized in the second year – two more courses that will deal with real-world problems.
"We are making sure it is hands-on," Behmand said. "The effort is to make the learning less abstract and more tangible."
One example is an outdoor exercise that simulates the formation of the planets. An instructor plays the Sun while students wearing different colored ribbons orbit around the teacher. The objective is to show how planets were created. In another class, students get to examine skulls made out of resin to learn about the emergence of Homo sapiens.
The origins of Big History are complex, said Cynthia Brown, professor emeritus of history and education at Dominican, because professors have tried to cover the various elements in separate courses in separate disciplines.
Brown’s interest in the subject started around the same time that Christian’s paper was published. In the mid-1990s, she taught a course at Dominican on the subject. "I taught it with great success and refined it over a 10-year period," she said.
In 2007, The New Press published her book on the subject, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present.
The goal at Dominican, Brown said, is to create a framework for future studies. "It will help [students] lead useful and constructive lives, and become citizens of the world," she said.
Some students, though, have balked when told that humans descended from apes. "The Bible doesn’t allow for that," Behmand said. "The struggle happened in varying degrees but there were one or two students in every class. But we can have opposing views and find an area of comfort."
She said such debates are a "good preparation for the world out there.... I think we can study the universe and read the scriptures. There is room for both of them."
Andy Gramajo, a freshman at Dominican, said he liked learning about how life on Earth was created. "I feel privileged to learn about the Big Bang and evolution," he said. "I feel like we are a pixel on a computer screen when compared to the universe."
The movement to popularize the teaching of Big History has gained substantial ground in the last year.
Christian has teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Big History Project, an effort to teach the subject to high school students. Currently, six high schools in the United States and three in Australia are part of a pilot project.
"We hope it is an on-ramp to the sciences and deeper history," said Bob Bain, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who is an academic adviser to the program.
Bain said he admired Dominican’s ambitious efforts. "They show the same spirit that we do," he said.
He said the teaching of Big History is important because it answers the fundamental question of how we got to where we are. "It is interdisciplinary but it doesn’t lose the unique disciplines," Bain said.
Last year, Christian and other professors established the International Big History Association. The association currently has its office at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan. There are plans to start a journal and organize a Big History conference in 2012.
Bain said he was interested in finding out what benefits the students at Dominican University get from their year of learning. "It holds great promise as an area of teaching and learning," Bain said. "Two years from now, we will know a lot more."