WUSTL biology professor featured in Bill Gates-sponsored online history initiative

| Staff Reporter

The Big History Project, an international education initiative funded by Bill Gates that intends to provide a comprehensive history of the universe and humanity in a cohesive curriculum, features several notable scientists and historians, including Washington University professor of biology Ursula Goodenough.

Professor Ursula Goodenough, a member of the Biology department, sits in her office. She has recently contributed to the Big History Project, a free, online-based initiative funded by Bill Gates.Skyler Kessler | Student Life

Professor Ursula Goodenough, a member of the Biology department, sits in her office. She has recently contributed to the Big History Project, a free, online-based initiative funded by Bill Gates.

The free, online-based course begins with coverage of the Big Bang and continues up through modern history and the present. As of fall 2014, over 1,200 primary and secondary schools and 15,000 students have begun to use the Big History Project for their curriculum.

The Big History Project reflects the increasing trend of free online education, joining organizations such as Khan Academy and universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that offer public courses.

Goodenough has published several papers and two books on the subjects of cell biology and religious naturalism. She believes that the Big History Project’s interdisciplinary initiative can improve secondary education across the country as a whole.

“It certainly seems to me that the understanding of the history of the universe and the planet and life is poorly conveyed in the high school science curricula right now and even in college curricula,” Goodenough said. “Just getting that into one’s mind, in terms of the times, is a doing a huge service.”

Professor David Christian of Australia’s Macquarie University pioneered the interdisciplinary field of Big History, offering his first college-level class on the subject in 1989. After hearing several of Macquarie’s lectures in 2008, Bill Gates decided to fund a program that would create a comprehensive Big History course for schools to use. Other contributors include Khan Academy founder Sal Khan, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, and YouTube’s CrashCourse creators John and Hank Green.

Goodenough was spending the summer of 2009 in Martha’s Vineyard when the Big History Project reached out to her. After coming to Massachusetts, the crew filmed her biology modules with a natural background. She was given a script for what to say for her biology videos but also contributed ideas to other aspects of the project.

The Big History Project reached out to Goodenough due to her previous experience with the interdisciplinary field. Around 2000, Goodenough began to teach a Big History course for non-science majors with physics professor Claude Bernard and Earth and Planetary Sciences associate professor Michael Wysession. However, the course was not allowed to cover any human history due to University policy, which required the class to be solely science-based, leading to a lesson plan that was not fully comprehensive.

“I also happen to think that once one understands these things, it gives the context for environmental concerns and social justice concerns,” Goodenough said. “It seems like a good thing to know.

“How they do the Big History courses with all the human stuff, what of course gets diminished is the science part, by definition. If you at least have a semester to do all the science, even though it’s still not nearly enough obviously, it’s broken down 50/50,” Goodenough said.

Goodenough’s course, entitled Epics of Evolution: Life, Earth and Cosmos, was offered at Washington University in the spring semester for over 10 years until it was cancelled due to time constraints in 2010.

  • Jane Steranko

    I had heard of her and have read some of her writings on religion. History, science coming together in education is a part of E O Wlson’s, “Concilience”. I will be surprise not one single bit if this some how expands even further out to the arts and languages.