Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module HIST20K1: Science and Technology in History: Big Science, Small Science

Department: History

HIST20K1: Science and Technology in History: Big Science, Small Science

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Not available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • A pass mark in at least ONE level 1 module in History


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To introduce students to the history of science and technology and to gain an understanding of the particular challenges involved, as well as some central ideas and concepts.


  • ‘When history looks at the 20th century, she will see science and technology as its theme’, wrote Alvin Weinberg, a nuclear physicist and director of the United States’ Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in 1961: ‘She will find the monuments of Big Science symbols of our time just as surely as she finds in Notre Dame a symbol of the Middle Ages.’ Weinberg did not propose this analogy to exalt Big Science, but to question whether its influence was always productive. Did building massive research facilities as though they were cathedrals—in service of national prestige and international competition—he wondered, syphon resources away from more deserving enterprises? We will explore this and other questions raised by the rapid growth of science in the twentieth century. Big machines, big communities, big stakes, and big money all came to the fore as both physics and biology grew through the Cold War–era. But at the same time that the physics of high-energy particles was being explored in massive particle accelerators and molecular geneticists were taking out patents on the very stuff of life, small science persisted. Materials physicists enabled the rise of modern computing by conducting lab-bench scale research in industrial laboratories; developmental biologists wondered how looking again at individual embryos and organisms could reshape our understanding of evolution. By exploring how these stories unfolded in parallel, we will confront questions such as: Why have societies found science valuable? How have they made assessments of scientific merit? Who pays for scientific research and why? How has the development of science intertwined with national prestige and global politics? Students should leave this module with a richer sense of how science has functioned as a social enterprise, how it intertwined with the politics of the twentieth century, and how to judge claims about the historical importance of scientific developments.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Ability to engage critically with some relevant primary source material and to assess the way other historians have used evidence.
  • Ability to engage with conceptual and methodological issues in the history of science and technology.
  • Ability to identify relevant secondary literature from the vast and rapidly expanding scholarship on the subject.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students will be introduced to primary source analysis, and should gain preliminary skills to evaluate different kinds of evidence.
  • Subject specific skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/ModuleProformaMap/
Key Skills:
  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/History/ugrads/ModuleProformaMap/

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Student learning is facilitated by a combination of the following teaching methods:
  • lectures to set the foundations for further study and to provide the basis for the acquisition of subject specific knowledge. Lectures provide a broad framework which defines individual module content, introducing students to themes, debates and interpretations. In this environment, students are given the opportunity to develop skills in listening, selective note-taking and reflection;
  • seminars to allow students to present and critically reflect upon the acquired subject specific knowledge, methodologies and theories, and to identify and debate a range of issues and differing opinions. The seminar is the forum in which students are given the opportunity to communicate ideas, jointly exploring themes and arguments. Seminars are structured to develop understanding and designed to maximise student participation related to prior independent preparation. Seminars give students the opportunity to develop oral communication skills, encourage critical and tolerant approaches to reasoned argument and historical discussion, build the students' ability to marshal historical evidence, and facilitate the development of the ability to summarise historical arguments, think in a rapidly changing environment and communicate in a persuasive and articulate manner, whilst recognising the value of working with others and, occasionally, towards shared goals.
  • Assessment:
  • Examinations test students' ability to work under pressure, to prepare for examinations and direct their own programme of revision and learning, and develop key time management skills. The examination gives students the opportunity to develop relevant life skills such as the ability to produce coherent, reasoned and supported arguments under pressure. Students will be examined on subject specific knowledge;
  • Summative essays remain a central component of assessment in history, due to the integrative high-order skills they develop. Essays allow students the opportunity to recognise, represent and critically reflect upon ideas, concepts and problems; students can demonstrate awareness of, and the ability to use and evaluate, a diverse range of resources and identify, represent and debate a range of subject-specific issues and opinions. Through the essay, students can synthesise information, adopt critical appraisals and develop reasoned argument based on individual research; they should be able to communicate ideas in writing, with clarity and coherence; and to show the ability to integrate and critically assess material from a wide range of sources.
  • Summative coursework will test students ability to communicate ideas in writing, present clear and cogent arguments succinctly and show appropriate critical skills as relevant to the particular module.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 17 16 in Term 2; 1 in Term 3 1 hour 17
Seminars 7 7 in Term 2 1 hour 7
Preparation and Reading 176
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Examination Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Seen open book examination 2 hours 100%
Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Coursework assessment consisting of a short essay (max. 2,000 words) or assignment of equivalent length e.g. source commentaries 2,000 words excluding footnotes and bibliography. 100%

Formative Assessment:

Formative work done in preparation for and during seminars, including oral and written work as appropriate to the module. The summative coursework will have a formative element by allowing students to develop ideas and arguments for the examination and to practice writing to similar word limits.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University