4 LI high schools tapped for Bill Gates project

Emily Amato 14, of North Bellmore works on

Emily Amato 14, of North Bellmore works on a presentation on Galileo in "Big History," a new class funded by Bill Gates which incorporates cosmology, history and social studies classes at Mepham High School in Bellmore. (Oct. 4, 2012) (Credit: Anthony Lanzilote)

High schools in the Bellmore-Merrick and Patchogue-Medford districts are among 47 schools nationwide selected to take part in the Big History project, co-founded by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, which aims for a cross-disciplinary study of history, science and social studies.

Andy Cook, senior director of Big History, Thursday visited two of the four schools -- Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick and Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore -- to witness classroom lessons currently under way.

He joined students in Jason Vitale's earth science class at Mepham High as they viewed a University of Michigan cosmology professor's lecture about questions behind the big-bang theory and the founding of the universe.


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"It's a different way of learning," said ninth-grader Zack Geller, 14. "It is the science angle of history."

The course, launched as a pilot program last year in a handful of districts nationwide and in Australia, expanded this year to include the 47 schools. The initiative is privately funded by Gates and managed by bgC3 Llc.

Big History covers 13.7 billion years of shared history, from before the big bang to modernity. It explores common themes and patterns, spanning vast time scales, to help students better understand people, civilizations and the world, according to the program. The college-level course was originated by David Christian, a historian now at Macquarie University in Australia.

"Big History lights up the lifelong learning in all of us," Cook said.

Gates, on his website, writes that the special curriculum "provides a framework for learning about anything and everything. I really like how the course challenges students to wrestle with big questions -- questions like how different time scales affect our perspective on history, how language transformed humanity, and what it means to be human."

In the Bellmore-Merrick district, educators combined two curriculums -- earth science and social studies -- to teach the program to ninth-graders. About 70 students in the three high schools were invited to enroll, based on teacher recommendation.

The initiative receives funding support from the Big History project for course materials and teacher training. Educators did not have an exact dollar figure for the cost, as some items are purchased and provided to the schools directly from the program and educators can access many materials online.

Bellmore-Merrick Superintendent Henry Kiernan learned of the project at a conference and submitted his district to be considered, school officials said. Robert Soel, science department chairman, said social studies and science teachers co-teach the class and that it meets the goals and requirements of the New York State curriculum.

Sara Ellis, 14, another student in Vitale's class, said she likes the approach. "We would know the reason why the caveman existed -- not just that cavemen existed," she said.

At Patchogue-Medford High School, the Big History project is part of the 10th-grade Global Studies curriculum and about 50 students are enrolled, said Gloria Sesso, chairwoman of the social studies department.

"What it does is it advances their skills of critical thinking and investigative problem-solving, and that's good," Sesso said.

John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore is the other local school participating.

BIG HISTORY

"Big History" interweaves themes and concepts from chemistry, physics and biology to help students understand historical narrative and human civilizations past, present and looking to the future.

THE PROJECT

Gives teacher training, course materials and access to online resources.

Works with experts, partners and guest lecturers to enliven "Big History" ideas and give students glimpses into different fields.

Provides learning tools, such as videos and activity guides, to help teachers adapt course content to their teaching styles.

Features activities to make information approachable by letting students build and test theories in practice.

Uses rich imagery in lectures to tell stories and encourage exploration. Source: bighistoryproject.com

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