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Big Era Eight: Landscape Unit 8.6

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Revolutions in Science and Technology
1900 – 1950 CE

Why This Unit?

This unit examines wide-ranging changes in the first half of the twentieth century in the fundamentals of what we know, and how we know it, about the universe, the composition and behavior of matter, and our biological inheritance. Rapid growth of technology and its increasing interaction with science accelerated complexity in this era, as illustrated in this unit in the fields of physics, aviation, and biology. The changes in science and technology opened up unprecedented opportunities and dangers for humanity which all of us will be living with for a long time. Understanding how these changes came about, the historical conditions that influenced them, and the short- and long-range effects of these developments will help us understand how to cope with their consequences today.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Compare the state of science and technology at the end of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth centuries, and describe changes.

2. Analyze the changing relationship between science and technology.

3. Describe what promoted, and what held back, developments in science and technology from 1900 to 1950.

4. Explain in what ways science and society influenced each other.

5. Marshal arguments for and against difficult decisions that science and technology raised during this period.


Time and Materials

This unit is versatile. The number and variety of discussion questions and activities provided is meant to give teachers the choice to use what most suits their interests and circumstances.

Each of the three lessons can stand on its own. Depending on time available and other circumstances, teachers may choose to forgo

  • one or even two of the lessons;
  • some of the Student Handouts within lessons;
  • some of the discussion questions and activities.

To facilitate modifications, discussion questions and activities are keyed to specific Student Handouts, and summary questions are identified.

Time taken will vary, depending on teachers’ selections from the materials provided, on coverage of detail, and on whether some Student Handouts and activities may be assigned as homework.

One example of barebones coverage in only one class period that still touches on each Unit Objective would be:

  • The teacher summarizes the main points of the Historical Background (desirable for the barebones approach, but not vital).
  • The students read Student Handout 1.2 and respond to questions/activities 1, 3, 4, 5, and 8 based on it.

Doing all parts of Lesson 1 with choices from among its questions and activities would take two periods. Lessons 2 and 3 could be tailored to one more class period each.

No materials are needed other than pencil and paper.

Table of Contents

Why this unit?


Unit objectives


Time and materials




The historical context


This unit in the Big Era timeline


Introduction to the Lessons


Lesson 1: Physics: Runaway changes, surprising discoveries

Lesson 2: Aviation: Breaking barriers
Lesson 3: Biology: Darwin’s controversial legacy
This unit and the Three Essential Questions
This unit and the Seven Key Themes
This unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking
Correlations to National and State Standards
Conceptual links to other lessons

Complete Teaching Unit in PDF format

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