UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies is an interdisciplinary centre for the integrated study of science's history, philosophy, sociology, communication and policy, located in the heart of London. Founded in 1921. Award winning for teaching and research, plus for our public engagement programme. Rated as outstanding by students at every level.

At UCL, the academic mission is paramount. Our ambition is to achieve the highest standards in our teaching and research.

Join us for BSc, MSc, and PhD study.

Staff books include:

Agar - Constant Touch 1st edition spacerAthena Swan Bronze Award

HPSC 3007 Topics in the History of the Physical Sciences

Bulbs on display - 1881-82, Teylers Museum

Dr. Chiara Ambrosio
Department of Science and Technology Studies
University College London

Meeting times
Tuesday, 11-12.
Tutorials: Tuesday 12-1, Thursday 9-10 and Thursday 10-11.
Please refer to your timetable for the venue of the lectures and seminars.

Due dates
Preliminary reports due on Monday 15 November
Draft 1(optional) due on Monday 17 December
Essay 1 and essay 2 due on Monday 7 January 2013
All final additions and modifications to be received by 22 April 2013
Presentations will be scheduled after the exam in May

Please note that you must pass all the assessed elements (essays and exam). Those who do not complete the course will not be given an overall mark for it.


This course continues, and hopefully will bring to completion, an ambitious didactic experiment originally developed by Prof. Hasok Chang. In it, students undertake original research projects, which they inherit from students who took the course in previous years. Through this inheritance mechanism, results of original research can accumulate from year to year. All students in the course work on related projects, so that the class, and the group of students that take this course over the years, form a real community of researchers.

The first phase of this project, which succeeded beyond expectation, resulted in the publication of a research monograph: Hasok Chang and Catherine Jackson, eds., An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Medicine, Technology and War (British Society for the History of Science, 2007). This was an extraordinary achievement: a scholarly book containing original research, all carried out by undergraduates.

Albert Robida - L'Electricite

We are now in the second phase of the project, which began in the academic year 2007-08. We are investigating the history of electricity from a variety of angles: philosophical, sociological, political, economic and cultural. The common theme is innovation through "domestication". Electricity has been instrumental in shaping the modern world as we know it, and we now take for granted its presence in our daily life. The dizzying array of electrical innovations that have changed our lives range from the humble light bulb to the electric chair, from the invention of the electrical battery to the discovery of the electron. Our research projects get behind the coming of these innovations and ask a variety of questions: how they were possible; why anyone bothered with them; which factors helped or hindered their acceptance; who promoted or resisted them, and why; what their impacts were, and so on. Although the course is billed as one in the history of the physical sciences, we investigate broadly in all areas of science, technology and medicine and their relations with society.

Electric Lighting

There is much to be gained from doing a series of interconnected studies that deal with various aspects of one material object or substance; each study will enrich others, often prompting unexpected insights for them. And in order to give our project coherence we will have a focus on innovation: how does something new arise and become accepted? The path of progress may look easy and straightforward in retrospect, but a closer look at the history of science often reveals great challenges and obstacles in the creation and dissemination of novelty even if it is considered obviously true or beneficial later.

Since its early phases, the key to the success of this course has been an unconditioned trust in the academic potential of undergraduate students. And if I have decided to bring this project to completion, it is because I strongly believe that undergraduate students have the ability and enthusiasm necessary to make the experiment work. The course requires a lot of hard work, though, so realistically I recommend it only to students who are able to work independently and who have a strong background in the history and philosophy of science or a related STS field. You also need to be aware that this is only a half-unit course, but those who get captured by the spirit of it tend to do a lot more work than it would be normally expected in a half-unit course.

The course is open to 2nd and 3rd year students in the STS department, or students who have previously done some other STS courses (or equivalent) to prepare them to do research in this area. Due to the nature of the work involved, only a relatively small number of students can be accommodated each year. Enrollment is by tutor’s agreement and preference will be given to students who will present a reasonable plan to move the existing work forward or opening up a worthwhile new avenue of inquiry. Other things being equal, students will be enrolled on a first-come first-served basis. Those interested should contact me with a brief proposal on which project they want to take up in which direction.

For descriptions of the projects undertaken so far and a list of possible topics click here

Desired products of this course and assessment

At the end of the course, you will be asked to submit an extended essay that contains a summary of your findings. You will also be asked to submit all useful materials generated by your research (this constitutes the “second essay”), in a form that will allow another researcher to use them. This should include a full annotated bibliography recording all the sources you have located and your action on them; a record of library and database searches; all reading notes; any photocopies you made; and a record of your own thoughts (including drawings, calculations, etc.). You can think of this collection as the “raw material” that went into the production of the extended essay. You should submit both an electronic and a printed version of the essay and research records. In the middle of the term you will also be asked to submit a preliminary report of roughly 2,000 words which will not be assessed but on which you will receive feedback that will help you determine the direction of your final essay. Preliminary reports will also be used to shape the content of the final exam.

At the end of the term I will ask you whether you are willing to have your work incorporated into any collective publications that might result. If you do not give your permission, your work will simply be kept for a limited period of time like all other assessed work. Where permission is given, all students who have worked on the project over the years will be made co-authors in any publications resulting from their work.

Assessment is by two essays and an exam, and you must complete all assessed elements in order to complete the course. Given the peculiar nature of the course, these will not be ordinary essays and exam. I will be giving you continual advice on the preparation of the assessed material, but the following are some basic parameters.

Essay 1 (50% of the total mark): This is the final product of your work. It will be assessed on the basis of its scholarly merit (originality, systematic synthesis of material, quantity and accuracy of information given, understanding of technical points when relevant, methodological sophistication, and effective engagement with previous work). Since the project is now at a relatively advanced stage, essays will be marked on the "value added" with respect to previous work.

Essay 2 (25%): This "essay" consists of research records. It will be assessed by three chief criteria (again considering "value added"). The first is content: how much useful information and ideas you were able to gather and record. The second is effort: often in real research, genuine effort may not produce much useful outcome; for the purpose of assessment in this course, you will be rewarded for all such "wasted" effort, too, as long as they can be demonstrated. The third is presentation: the main concern here is that the information should be organized and presented in a way that is most convenient and useful for the next person who will be taking up the project.

Exam (25%): The exam has two parts. Part 1 tests "general knowledge" of the material covered in the course. Here you will be tested on the content of all of the preliminary reports submitted by the group, as well as any introductory material that I present at the beginning. It is therefore crucial that you work in close collaboration with the rest of your group in preparing for this piece of assessment. Part 2 of the exam is an essay on what you have learned in the process of doing your research, aside from the content of your essays. You may touch on any issues you consider important, but most welcome will be reflections on the following: historiography; the use of primary and secondary sources; the interaction between different STS disciplines; the connections and contrasts between science, medicine and technology; techniques of gathering and processing information; the process of defining, sustaining, and refining a research question.

Aims of the course

1. To produce knowledge. The most fundamental premise of this course is that undergraduate students are capable of creating knowledge, not merely absorbing it. In fact you do create knowledge routinely, in writing your dissertations or any serious essays; however, most likely the fruits of your labour will end up scattered and hidden in piles of papers, studied by your tutors for assessment but never to be looked at again. In this course I orchestrate your efforts so that they can be pulled together into a recognizable product. Passive learning of existing knowledge is not our main goal here (though pushing the boundaries of knowledge does of course require first finding out where those boundaries lie.)

2. To learn, by doing, how to produce knowledge. The process of doing active research will also serve the purpose of training you for similar future work. The skills you will acquire include: searching for relevant materials; understanding primary sources; collaborating with others who are pursuing related projects; using other people's previous works (secondary sources) to help your inquiry; preserving and presenting the results of your work so that others (including yourself at a later time) can build on them effectively.

Mode of working

In this course we try to become a real community of scholars. The first thing this means is that you build on the works done by your predecessors. As a group, you have inherited the research done by the people who took this course in previous years. Your job is to improve and add to their work. Each of you will craft a particular research project, in close consultation with me. You will work independently, but in close collaboration with relevant colleagues. Depending on the project you will take up, I will direct you toward experts in STS and other related academic fields that might provide you with useful advice. My role will be that of director and coordinator of the whole collection of projects. This will include:

· Helping you crafting individual projects;

· Providing background information and suggesting sources to examine;

· Providing training in research methods and skills;

· Serving as a central point where all progress is reported and synthesized;

· Facilitating mutual interactions;

· Suggesting points for improvement and further investigation.

The pleasure of teaching

Very soon in the process you are likely to know far more about the topic than I do. This will be a sign that your work is heading in the right direction – however, at that point you will have to prove that you are capable of independent inquiry into your topic, just like a proper researcher. This does not mean that I will stop following your progress – on the contrary, it will be my responsibility to keep the pace with your work and suggest points for further improvement.

In the few initial sessions, I will make a brief introduction to the subject and coordinate people's choices of individual projects. Once each student has chosen a project, we will spend part of the whole-group sessions hearing a brief report on the most significant things that each one of you has learned since the previous session. The remaining part of the session will be devoted to mini-lectures to refresh your research skills. We will occasionally have guest-speakers and visits to museums and displays that will be aimed at broadening your horizons and help you think about your topic in a broader context.

In addition to the whole-group sessions, we will also arrange individual or small-group meetings to discuss the progress of individual projects closely and focus on specific issues arising from individual projects. Outside the formal meetings, I will be available to meet each one of you during my office hours and discuss further details. I will also read and comment on notes or short drafts. In addition, you are strongly encouraged to meet with each other to exchange information and discuss areas of overlap in your projects.

Course archive

Information about past offers of this course is presented here (link)

Sir Humphry Davy, Chlorinator and Electrifier

Find us on facebook!

Chlorinators & Electrifiers

Page last modified on 24 sep 12 21:09 by Chiara Ambrosio

UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS)
0207 679 1328 office | +44 207 679 1328 international
sts@ucl.ac.uk | www.ucl.ac.uk/sts | @stsucl
postal address:  Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT | United Kingdom
street address: 22 Gordon Square, London, WC1E 6BT | maps