Big History Project

Building a teacher-facilitated, interdisciplinary online course for high school students to learn the history of the universe
Gates Ventures
"Grappling with a vast timeline is an enormous challenge. Intentional Futures applied their design and content development expertise to create an engaging, innovative course."
– Andy Cook, managing director, Gates Ventures


David Christian’s Big History was already a popular book and college course when Bill Gates learned about it and got inspired; the course covered biology, astronomy, geography, and social science. Bill’s idea was simple but audacious: let’s bring it to high schools. That’s when we got the call.

In this three year project we transformed a complex college course into a dynamic, online experience for high school students everywhere. We partnered with David Christian, the University of Michigan, and Gates Ventures to conceptualize, design and pilot a course for high schools. Then we built an online free course that anyone can take.

What we made

We gathered the right partners and stakeholders to build a comprehensive curriculum supported by a deep library of content, teacher training and a plan for reaching thousands of students.

Working with curriculum designers and subject matter experts allowed us to simultaneously develop course materials and produce animations and videos to bring topics to life. Students would be able to navigate through 10 units of the material online, and teachers would get guidance for instruction and assessment every step of the way.

Once the course was live in a pilot state, we visited schools to witness how teachers and students interacted with the course and made adjustments to both material and website functionality based on what we saw.

Because of the enthusiasm about the classroom version of Big History, we worked with our partners to design and develop a public version of the course, which is free and available to anyone. This shorter version contains much of the same content and includes short skill-testing quizzes.

Desktop view of the Big History dashboard
We designed large infographic posters for classroom walls

The impact continues

During our time working on Big History Project, the number of schools delivering the course grew from 0 to 300. Participation continues to grow to this day; in the 2018/2019 school year, 1800 schools delivered a Big History program to its students. Students who take Big History significantly improve their research and writing skills over the course of the year.

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