First Year Experience Focuses on `Big History'

Dominican University of California’s incoming freshmen will spend their first year exploring the origins and evolution of the universe in an interactive, multi-disciplinary course based on "Big History." Throughout the year, students will gain a greater understanding of today’s issues by studying the many links between nature and humankind.

Big History is an emerging academic discipline that provides a unifying overview of the 14 billion-year history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. Big History synthesizes history, astronomy, chemistry, biology, geology, sociology, and other fields to provide a cohesive picture, to scale, of the history of the human race and its relationship to the planet.

 “Big History will provide a common framework for students’ future courses at the University. In addition, the course will provide our freshmen with the writing and research skills that will enable their success in core courses and beyond,” says Dr. Mojgan Behmand, Director of General Education and the First Year Experience.
In recent years, Big History courses have been added at more than a dozen universities across the United States and overseas. However, Dominican’s program is the first to be offered as a cohesive course sequence rather than a single course. It uses Big History as an expansive framework to further the study of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

“We have expanded on the Big History concept in order to develop a course sequence that emphasizes the students’ critical and creative thinking and helps students think about the future of humanity as a species  on our planet,” Behmand says.

“The Big History course sequence emphasizes global interconnectivity with the immense frame of reference as the foundation for recognizing and addressing the challenges of the 21st century,” she adds.  “As the evolution of human cultures is studied, students engage with fundamental questions regarding the nature of the universe and our momentous role in shaping possible futures for our planet.”

Dominican’s path to Big History formally began in 2008 when the University overhauled its general education curriculum and first-year programming, positing the creation of first-year seminars that were both foundational and global in intent. The seminars also were to incorporate the teaching of competencies, such as writing and research. In 2009, the faculty voted to adopt Big History as the focus of the seminars. The course sequence was launched in 2010, and the faculty’s continuous re-evaluation of the program highlighted the need for the Big History story to be told in a more engaging, interactive manner.

This past year, the curriculum has evolved under the direction of Behmand. Additional members of Dominican’s faculty were recruited to teach Big History, and second-semester courses emphasizing creativity were added to the curriculum. A key advisor to the project is Big Historian and Dominican faculty member Cynthia Stokes Brown, the author of Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. Dr. Brown has been at forefront of the Big History movement since the 1990s.

Beginning the 2011-2012 academic year, Big History courses will be led by 15 Dominican faculty drawing on the collaboration of 30 faculty across the disciplines, including art, business, English, history, mathematics, music, occupational therapy, political science, psychology, religion, and humanities.

The first semester will be devoted to the study of Big History in a seminar with a maximum enrollment of 22 students. Dominican will offer 13 sections in order to accommodate all 250+ entering freshmen. In addition to writing and library activities, the course will include such interactive activities as Retelling Creation Stories, Being the Solar System, The Emergence of Hominines, and the Skull Lab. Co-curricular activities have included a guest lecture by Dr. Robert Bellah and movie nights. This year it will also include a lecture and movie screening by cosmologist Dr. Brian Swimme, a stargazing event, movie nights, and group final reviews and presentations.

The teaching of writing and research has been integrated into all Big History classes in order to further develop students’ ability to articulate learned concepts and engage critically with those ideas – key for developing critical and creative thinking abilities. Faculty will pilot a new McGraw Hill Big History textbook written by Cynthia Stokes Brown, David Christian, and Craig Benjamin. Faculty also will collaborate to write their own book on Big History pedagogy.
The second semester offers students a choice from among the numerous discipline-based courses. These courses re-iterate the concepts taught during the first semester and examine those concepts through the lens of a specific discipline. Course offerings include Visualizing Big History, Human Cultures and Political Systems through the Lens of Big History, Business and Trade through the Lens of Big History, and Myth and Metaphor through the Lens of Big History.

All Big History classes are designed to be interactive, utilizing engaging pedagogy coupled with co-curricular activities.

“We emphasize engaged learning and the development of community. Students will participate in a lot of hands-on activities. For example, this semester we have developed an activity to teach students about the solar system that involves students going outside simulating the formation of solar system and the formation of the planets. We have also integrated reflection time for the student to contemplate learned content and its personal significance,” Behmand says.

Faculty involved with the Big History project have participated in two intensive summer institutes and weekly meetings in order to fine-tune the Big History courses and learning outcomes. Faculty development will be ongoing: it will include one-day retreats pre- and post-semester and weekly two-hour lunch meetings throughout the semesters.

“This collaborative and collective effort has rendered the program expansive in its goals and interactive and engaging in its methods. Most importantly, this program has incorporated a holistic vision that moves from the general narrative of Big History in the first semester to a reiteration of the major themes and patterns in discipline-based courses in the second semester to specialized courses in the second  year,” Behmand says.

The program culminates in a two-course sequence in the students’ second year with a newly created track titled Shaping the Future.

“Students study the past, make projections for the future, and then enter an integrative second-year course sequence that addresses essential learning outcomes – specifically personal and social responsibility – through components such as service-learning, community based research, or engaging with ‘real world’ problems,” Behmand says.
“We are providing students with the forum to develop knowledge and practical skills needed to act to transform issues of vital importance for our shared future, and to do so in a manner that is realistic but positively empowered.”


MEDIA CONTACT: Sarah Gardner, Director, Communications & Research, 415-485-3239,