Episode 2: Steel – the Great Conqueror
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This lesson is designed for students studying geography, world history,
economics, and life science in grades 6-12. Click on the list below
to jump down to a particular sub-section.
Students will be able to:
- Brainstorm their prior knowledge and ideas about the role of guns and steel in historic conquests.
- Participate in class discussion using their own opinions supported by facts, examples, and reasons.
- Use listening and note taking skills to view the film segment and complete the accompanying viewing guide accurately.
- Utilize a number of primary sources to conduct research about weapons from a specific time
- Work in pairs/small groups to complete a project and presentation
illustrating significant weaponry from their assigned time period
- Make a group presentation to teach classmates about what they learned about the weaponry and impact of the weapons researched for their assigned time period.
- Write a written response to Jared Diamond’s theories about the significance of guns and steel, including stating personal opinions supported by what was learned from research and other classroom activities.
Relevant National Standards:
- Standard 27: Understands how European society experienced political,
economic, and cultural transformation in the age of global intercommunication between 1450
- Standard 29: Understands the economic, political, and cultural interrelations among peoples of Africa, Europe, and the Americas between 1500 and 1750.
Geography – The World in Spatial Terms
- Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological
relationships and patterns
- Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective
Geography – Human Systems
- Standard 3: Understands the characteristics and uses of spatial
organization of Earth’s surface
Geography – Uses of Geography
- Standard 9: Understands the nature, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface
- Standard 12: Understands the patterns of human settlement and their causes
Language Arts – Writing
- Standard 17: Understands how geography is used to interpret the past
Language Arts – Reading:
- Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes
Language Arts – Listening and Speaking:
- Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of information texts.
Language Arts – Viewing:
- Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and nterpret visual media.
Thinking and Reasoning:
Working With Others
- Standard 1: Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument
- Standard 1: Contributes to the overall effort of the group
- Standard 4: Displays effective interpersonal communication skills
Approximately 2 to 3 90-minute or 4 to 5 45-minute class periods
- Internet access to allow for viewing of companion website's
“The Story of…” Steel
and Writing features and
- Television/VCR for viewing Guns, Germs and Steel:
Episode Two content.
- Viewing Guide handout for each student (Download
PDF here. [203k] Requires free Adobe
- Viewing Guide Answer Key for Teachers (Download
PDF here. [210k] Requires free Adobe
- Library/primary resources for conducting research
- Timeline Project Guidelines for each student
PDF here. [216k] Requires free Adobe
- Assorted art supplies including poster board, construction paper,
markers, glue, colored pencils, re-sealable bags, etc. for construction
of games and packaging
This episode explores, in more depth, the idea that geographic luck
enabled some cultures to become more agricultural, thus allowing them
to establish larger settlements with people specializing in many aspects
of technological development. One of these was the development of
steel for use in weaponry. Diamond chronicles the success of the Spanish
Conquistadors and how the use of written language gave them an advantage
over the Incas, along with their advanced weapons including guns and
state of the art steel swords. These two things combined allowed the
Spanish to overthrow a much larger Inca army, thus taking control
of their empire and its riches.
Assumed Student Prior Knowledge
Students will need a basic understanding of Jared Diamond’s
theory that certain civilizations gained great power and wealth and
were able to conquer much of the world because of simple, geographic
luck. They had access to the best resources because of where they
lived. In addition, students should have some understanding of who
the Spanish Conquistadors were and where and when the Inca Empire
was in power.
Part 1: Steel the Great Conqueror
- Using an overhead projector, chart paper, or a blackboard, record
each of the following questions before class begins so they can
be used as part of a group brainstorming session.
To assess students’ prior knowledge and get them focused
on the topics that will be presented in Guns, Germs
and Steel – Episode Two, take approximately 15 minutes
to brainstorm the answers to each of the questions above as a
group. Record all student ideas and responses and keep these in
case students want to refer back to them later.
- How did the development of steel help civilizations gain power?
- What were the common weapons of war 500 years ago? 300 years
ago? 100 years ago? 50 years ago?
- What weapons do you think have had the most impact on warfare
Once brainstorming is completed, ask students the following
question. Have students share their answers in a short class discussion
based on this question.
- Why were the Europeans the people who were able to conquer
so many of the world’s
great civilizations and control so much of the world?
To assist with this discussion, refer to the Guns,
Germs and Steel web site's interactive map entitled
The World at www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/world/index.html
to introduce or review Jared Diamond's theory that the reason
the Europeans were able to conquer the majority of the world was
because they had a geographic advantage. Explain that Diamond's
theory suggests that the Europeans were able to grow the most
nutritious crops and raise the most domesticated animals. This,
in turn, allowed them to prosper and create societies where people
could specialize in a given area, thus producing technological
advances that allowed them to conquer other civilizations.
One of the most important technological advances, according
to Diamond, was steel. Another was writing. Using the Guns,
Germs and Steel web site content entitled The
Story of Writing available at http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/variables/writing.html,
review the role writing had in the Spanish conquest over the Inca
Empire. Pay special attention to how the battle tactics of Hernan
Cortes were passed on in writing and used in the conquering on
Next, explain to students that they will be viewing Guns,
Germs and Steel: Episode Two to
learn more about how the Europeans managed to take control of
the vast Inca Empire and overthrow the native South Americans
with virtually no loss of European lives. View Episode 2 and have
students complete the Viewing Guide as they are watching. Stop
the film periodically to discuss points as necessary throughout
the film. If limited viewing time is available, watch the segments
After viewing is complete, take time to discuss the answers
to the Viewing Guide. In addition, using "The
Story of Steel" available at www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel//variables/steel.html,
have students learn more about the impact of steel in advancing
civilizations around the world. Re-address the first brainstorming
question: How did the development of steel help civilizations
gain power? and have students use what they learned to answer
this in more detail in group discussion.
Part 2: How Steel Changed the Way We Fight
- Beginning to 2:00 (previews the conflict between Incas and
Spanish conquistadors and summarizes Diamond's theories related
- 13:57 to 21:42 (explains the role and history of the development
of steel weapons by the Europeans and the benefits this technology
- 37:15 to 42:32 (tells the story of the confrontation between
Spanish conquistadors and the Incas and explains how steel
gave the Europeans an easy victory)
- " 52:40-53:19 (summary of how Diamond's theories about geography
explain Spain's easy victory over the Inca Empire)
- Since the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1532, warfare
has changed dramatically, but two variables remain the same:
- steel is still significantly important in modern warfare
- countries with the most technological advances still hold
most of the world's power
- One of the brainstorming questions from Part 1 asked students
to discuss which weapons they felt had the most impact on warfare
throughout history. This activity will examine this question again
and will also present the class with the opportunity to learn
about the types of weapons that have been provided significant
advances over time.
- Explain to the class that they will be working in pairs to create
a portion of a weaponry timeline. Each group will be assigned
to learn about weapons from a specific time period. They will
then create a piece of the timeline to be shared with the class
and posted in chronological order around the classroom. Distribute
the Timeline Project Guidelines and review them with students.
- Provide pairs with time to conduct research and prepare their
piece of the timeline according to the specified guidelines. Students
will also need to prepare a 1-2 minute presentation explaining
their portion of the timeline.
- Once all pairs have completed their timeline sections, have
each group present it’s findings in chronological order.
Provide 3-5 minutes for each group’s presentation to allow
for questions and answers. Post each piece of the timeline after
it is presented to the class.
- Once all timeline sections have been presented and students
have had an opportunity to learn about the technological advances
in weaponry, assign the following written response to summarize
the lesson. Students should write 1-2 paragraphs to address each
of the questions below:
- In your opinion, which weapon has had the most impact on
warfare historically? Why?
- Do the findings presented in the timeline activity support
Jared Diamond’s theory that historically, the most successful
conquerors experienced success because of the geographic advantages
they had over other countries? Why or why not?
- In your opinion, how has the spread of guns and steel changed
the balance of world power over the past 100 years now that
most countries have access to them?
- Do you think that Jared Diamond's theories will hold true for future generations? Why or why not?
- Students could receive participation scores/grades for involvement
in group brainstorming
and class discussion and research work in pairs.
- Students could receive completion or accuracy grades for their
work on the Viewing Guides.
- Students could complete peer evaluations or be graded using
a scoring guide for completion of the research project/production
of the games.
- Students should receive individual grades on the follow-up written
opinion essay asking them to discuss to discuss weaponry and Jared
Diamond’s theories related to Guns, Germs, and Steel.
- Have students research and learn about other great conquests
where one army or civilization
was overthrown by a much smaller force simply because of the technology
Retell this story by creating dioramas or multi-media presentations
that re-enact the events
and showcase the weaponry/technology that provided the great advantage.
- Have students debate the pros and cons of the invention of firearms.
Using what they have
learned from their research along with this personal opinions,
have students decide if the
world would be better off if guns had never been invented.
Guns, Germs and Steel web site sections
The World (interactive map activity) www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/world/index.html
Variables (“The Story
of…” features content about the significance of writing
and steel) www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/variables/index.htm
Firearms, and Ammunition History
provides a short history of the development of various firearms and
provides a detailed collection of information related to most major
conflicts/military campaigns throughout history
About the Author:
Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught
middle school and high school English, social studies, reading,
and technology courses for twelve years. Prososki has worked extensively
with PBS authoring and editing many lesson plans for various PBS
programs and TeacherSource. In addition to conducting workshops
for teachers at various state and national meetings, Prososki also
works with many corporate clients creating training programs and
materials, facilitating leadership and operations workshops, and
providing instructional support for new program rollouts. Prososki
has authored one book and also serves as an editor for other writers
of instructional materials.