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Topics in science

In this module you will study three exciting topics in contemporary science which will provide you with a broad understanding of OU level 1 science. These topics include Human genetics and health issues, which deals with our genes – an area at the forefront of medical science and Empire of the microbes, which explores the intriguing world of bacteria, viruses, yeast and other microscopic organisms. To allow some specialisation between studying health sciences or environmental sciences you will have a choice between Molecules, medicines and drugs, which explores drug development, infection and disease and The frozen planet, which explains the science behind the polar regions.   

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
1 7 4
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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Student Reviews

I really enjoyed this course. Without a science background, I found it a challenge (particularly the chemistry in the final...
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An interesting module. The title could do with changing as it's not as broad as it sounds. There are four...
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What you will study

This module has three components.

Human genetics and health issues which examines the patterns of inheritance of genes, including those associated with genetic diseases; the sequence and content of the human genome; how genes function; how the physical and biochemical characteristics of the body are produced; and why there are differences between individuals and between populations. Finally, it explores some of the issues surrounding research into genes, from biological, medical and ethical points of view.

Empire of the microbes provides an introduction to microbes, explaining their importance in disease and environmental issues and their role in making and spoiling food. You will learn about: the biology of microbes and how they have been studied and cultured from historical times to the present; the efforts made to combat the negative effects of microbes in the health and food industries; how microbes are beneficially used to make drugs and food; the basic ideas behind genetic engineering; and some of the science behind the major environmental cycles in which microbes are involved. This will enable you to understand more about the role and importance of microbes in human society. An online digital microscope will allow you to explore the microbial world for yourself and will also do your own experiments.

If your interest is on health or life sciences, then you should consider Molecules, medicines and drugs which you will study online. It starts by discussing the development and testing of drugs within a social and economic setting, before moving on to explore the discovery and development of a range of drugs and medicines that relieve pain, effect cures and alleviate the symptoms of ill-health. You’ll find out how drugs interact with and affect their target areas in the human body. Online activities will help you to visualise the three-dimensional structures and shapes of the molecules concerned and develop an understanding of how the drugs work. The story includes topics on how aspirin relieves aches and pains; Ventolin treats the symptoms of asthma; penicillin combats harmful bacteria; and Tamiflu helps in the fight against bird flu.

If you would prefer to focus on environmental or biological science, study The frozen planet which examines the physical controls influencing the shape and character of our planet over millions of years through to the climate we experience today. You will investigate the different environmental niches where wildlife flourishes, and the strategies some species have developed to exploit them. You will discover the influence of humans on the environment and learn about their current management and fate in the near future. Specially-filmed film clips from the spectacular BBC Frozen Planet team will form some of the topic activities. 

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be assigned to a tutor who will hold online tutorials, facilitate one or more online forums, mark your tutor-marked assignments and generally help you achieve the module's learning outcomes.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) and end-of-module assessment (EMA).

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in February 2016 when we expect it will be available for the last time.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This module complements the 60-credit key introductory modules Exploring science (S104) and Science and health: an evidence based approach (SDK100), and is particularly suitable if you are taking either of these modules or have already taken one of them.

You should have basic mathematical skills and an understanding of basic scientific concepts. Chemical ideas are explained when they are needed. However, if you are entirely new to the language of chemistry, you will need patience while you become familiar with the vocabulary, and practice applying the new skills that you are learning.

You should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper, and you should be able to communicate your thoughts clearly and comprehensibly in a written format.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


Start End England fee Register
30 Jan 2016 Sep 2016 £1350.00

Registration closes 07/01/16 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in February 2017.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 03/08/2015.

What's included

Three printed module books (Empire of the microbes, Human genetics and health issues, The Frozen Planet), an ebook (Molecules, medicines and drugs), study guide, website, online digital microscope and other online materials, and online discussion forums for interaction with other students.

You will need

Basic scientific calculator; access to some household items to conduct practical activities.

You will also need some means of inputting a digital image of a hand-drawn diagram into a word-processed file e.g. scanner, digital camera or mobile phone with a camera.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio/video components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of the study material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical and scientific materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. The printed module books are available in a comb-bound format. Other alternative formats of the module materials may be available in the future.

Some parts of the module are delivered online via the website, so you will have to make considerable use of a computer and the internet. Some parts of the module rely heavily on complex diagrams, including maps, chemical structures and coloured images, some of which are delivered via an online digital microscope and this must be studied in order to complete the module. One of the learning outcomes of the module is that students should develop an ability to interpret images, structures and video sequences. No textual descriptions of diagrams will be available and the use of a sighted assistant to interpret the images would conflict with this learning outcome. However, the assessment will only require students to demonstrate that the majority of the module learning outcomes have been achieved. You should consider if you will find achieving these learning outcomes challenging then contact the OU for advice if necessary.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.