UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


STS Summer Challenge 2013

STS is delighted to announce we will offer a workshop for UCL Outreach's Summer Challenge 2013 programme (link). This is an exciting programme, aimed at increasing the accessibility of university. It also is designed as a taster for the intellectual thrills of our discipline and career opportunities.

The programme has been organised and will be run by Ms Stephanie Ratcliffe. for more information, contact the UCL Outreach (link) or the STS admissions team (link).

Applications are made through UCL Outreach. Deadline 17 April 2013 (link).

Science and Society

This highly interdisciplinary course is an excellent choice for science students who enjoy discussions about science’s relationship to society, and for humanities students who want to learn more about how science works. You will learn about the history of science, looking at how medieval alchemists’ experiments led to the creation of the modern periodic table. You will learn about the scientific method – how discoveries and breakthroughs are made, the difference between true sciences and pseudo sciences, and how we can assess the validity of scientific hypotheses. You will explore the representation of science in the media, looking at good and bad examples of science journalism and interviewing a journalist from The Guardian. You will debate ethical issues in science, exploring drug development in the pharmaceutical industry: should ‘big pharma’ companies invest in research for HIV drugs, cures for the common cold or drugs that extend the life of cancer patients? This course will stretch your mind and get you thinking about science from different perspectives.

Course learning objectives

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  1. describe key events in the development of chemistry
  2. be confident in conducting basic historical source work
  3. understand and critically analyse selected issues in the philosophy of science
  4. appreciate the complex relationship between science and society and evaluate how this relationship should be managed in the light of contemporary controversies.

In terms of key skills, students will have:

  1. developed their critical thinking and analytic skills; essential to a successful transition from A’ level to university learning
  2. grown in confidence and the ability to direct their  own learning
  3. discovered a passion for learning and a desire to study in a university environment

Session outlines

This is a provisional list of the activities involved in the module.

Week One Alchemy: the beginnings of chemistry?

Objectives: 1. Introduce students to historical source work 2. Discuss criteria for demarcating scientific activity from non-scientific activity 3. Evaluate the success of demarcation criteria

We will begin by introducing students to the practise of alchemy and its historical context through the study of primary sources, they will be encouraged to ask the following questions; who conducted alchemy? What were their aims? What were their methods? Students should then rate alchemy in relation  to other activities (cooking, astrology,  geology, physics, botany ,forestry etc.) according to how scientific they think each is. They will then use their ratings and subsequent discussion to come up with their own criteria to rate how scientific an activity is. These will then be compared with the criteria provided by sociologists and philosophers and we will analyse the strengths and weaknesses of each of these approaches as a group.

Week Two: Phlogiston Vs Oxygen: the war of the test tubes

Objectives: 1. Introduce students to the notion that scientific theories often come into conflict 2. Reflect on why conflicts arise 3. Evaluate whether Frege’s sense –reference distinction provides an appropriate solution to the phlogiston/oxygen case study

We will begin with a short tutor led presentation on the two rival theories of combustion circulating in the 18th century. The students will be then be split into three groups. The first two groups will be provided with appropriate sources and asked to prepare a case either for the acceptance of phlogiston theory or for oxygen theory. The third group will be provided with overview sources and asked to think about factors that are relevant to theory choice, after each side has presented their case the third group will decide which theory should be accepted.  During this process and with the aid of props (a bottle of phlogiston and a bottle of oxygen) and guided questions, students will be directed towards uncovering  Frege’s sense/reference distinction and the theory ladenness of observation for themselves. (Both sides have the same substance in their bottle but they are attaching different descriptions to that substance). This material will be presented formally at the end.

Week Three: Atomic Discoveries

Objectives: 1. Critique the role of science journalism in society 2. Appreciate how to produce an excellent piece of science journalism under the guidance of science journalist provided by The Guardian outreach. 3. Use this as a medium to tell the story of the discovery of an atomic element

We will begin with a tutor led presentation giving a brief history of science journalism and the increased importance that is placed on communicating science to the public.  Then, using recent examples of chemistry in the news  we will have a short discussion of whether we think science communication is valuable and why.  The main part of the session will take place in collaboration with The Guardian and will involve a science journalist giving a two part presentation. The first part will discuss their day-to-day work. as well as their career history, with the aim of emphasising the value of higher education.  The second part of their talk will provide a step by step guide on how to produce a piece of science journalism with specific focus on news worthiness and structure, we’ll also evaluate good and bad pieces of journalism.  The students will then have 30 minutes to produce a news article focusing on the discovery of a periodic element as if they were there at the time. They will be provided with fake contacts, press releases and context that would be available to a contemporary science journalist. These will be presented back to the group at the end of the session.

Week Four: Little Chemistry, Big Chemistry

Objectives: 1. Critically assess the  relationship between science and society.  2. Understand what is meant by ‘big science’ and compare it with ‘little science’ 3. Develop students’ confidence at reading and synthesising academic texts

The development of weather forecasting will be used as a case study that demonstrates how chemical discoveries can impact upon society and how society might have influenced the direction of chemistry.  Students will be provided with examples of 19th century weather forecasting maps and guided questions, each of which leads them towards a key theme in the sociology of science e.g. scientific expertise, establishment of intuitions, state funding of science etc. Working in small groups they will discuss the maps in turn and feed their ideas back to the group. After each discussion the tutor will give a short presentation providing a more detailed account of the theme.

The second part of the session will focus on developments in the way chemistry is practised by introducing the concept of ‘Big Science’. After an introductory presentation students will each complete a different comprehensive exercise and will feedback the different perspectives/criticisms of Big Science to the group. The aim of the exercise is to allow students to work independently on a challenging piece of text with support available when needed. It’s hoped this will improve their ability to pick out key points, distinguish fact and opinion and improve their confidence.

Week Five: Big drugs and big decisions

Objectives: 1. To understand the role of the pharmaceutical industry in getting drugs to the marketplace 2. To develop their own opinion about which drugs should be funded and support their view with an argument

We will begin with an introduction to the pharmaceutical industry and the process by which drugs get onto our shelves. Students will be asked to imagine they are head of finance for a large drugs company, they are given a budget and a series of proposals for potential drugs and must decide which drugs to fund and how much of their budget to spend on each one (cures for common cold/HIV/Aging etc.) They must provide  justification for their decision!  

After their initial consultation they will be handed envelopes containing the views of other interested parties (shareholders, activist groups, consumers) and should adjust their budgets according to the arguments they find convincing (remembering their role within the company!) Students will then be presented with statistics showing the proportion of their budget pharmaceutical companies spend on different types of drugs, and we will discuss their reactions as a class. 

For the final part of the session we will focus on life extension drugs. They will be presented with ethical arguments against their development and will be asked to think of counter arguments in each case (with guided questions if necessary). We will end by discussing the importance of thinking about counter arguments and responses in an academic essay, which will lead to a reminder/Q&A session about their essays which will be due the following week.

Week Six: You're in the spotlight

This session is used for students’ final oral presentations, feedback and evaluation.