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Practical environmental science

Practical environmental science explores the natural world through activities ranging from the use of satellite data for mapping land cover change to exploring the hydrology of a limestone pavement. The activities include two compulsory residential field trips and two online activities carried out in your home. The course ends with an exciting team project, where you will work with students from other courses in this Practical science series. Although there’s a choice of residential school dates, we can’t always offer your first choice. The cost of accommodation and travel is not included in the course fee.

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Module code
Study level
2 9 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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“A very interesting and engaging course. The two field studies modules were superb. The tutors were, without exception, encouraging and...”
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What you will study

Scientific enquiry, whether in the field or in the laboratory, proceeds through objective observation and experimentation: the questions ’why?’ and ’how?’ are explored through interactions and tests inspired by ’what if ....?’. Skilled practical scientists reveal underlying relationships by devising questions that can be addressed safely; they report effectively and critically evaluate their findings. By studying this course you will develop these skills that are essential for practical work.

In this course you will participate in two compulsory residential field trips and carry out two online activities at home. 

You will start your study with the Water quality monitoring activity followed by one of the residential school field trips. Your third activity will be Remote observation followed by the second of the residential school field trips. You will have an opportunity to choose / book the dates for your residential school attendance, in January 2014, and this will decide the order you study the residential school field trips.

Online activities

Water quality monitoring – At the start of this online activity you will carry out a water survey at a local pond or river, based on a subjective assessment and an analysis of the aquatic invertebrates present. You will then complete a series of online investigations and interactive screen experiments to:

  • measure the total hardness of water samples by performing titrations
  • determine the nitrate levels in samples of river water in which you prepare a calibration curve using a spectrophotometric method
  • work out which pesticides are present in a given water sample using a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry system
  • look at the microbiological safety of drinking water using a variety of standard methods.

You’ll also collect data over a week-long period, via a webcam, to determine the biological oxygen demand and the rate constant for the uptake of oxygen used in the breakdown of organic material by microorganisms present in water. This topic is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of environmental science, chemistry and biology.

Remote observation – What can we discover about our planet – and others – using remote sensors? This online activity will guide you through the manipulation and interpretation of large-scale observational data on oceans, atmosphere and planetary surfaces, mainly using geographic information system (GIS) techniques. You will use an open-source GIS software package, guided by instructions produced specifically for this activity. The study materials include projects focused on ocean colour, Martian landforms, atmospheric spectra, and land cover change. This activity is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of geology, environmental science, physics, chemistry and biology.

Residential school field trips

Hydrology and meteorology in the field – This compulsory three-day residential school concentrates on how to collect and interpret hydrological and meteorological data in the field. In the beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park in the UK, you will carry out three days of fieldwork around Malham Tarn. The accommodation and laboratory work will be based at a field centre in a converted Georgian country house. You will study a local catchment; investigate the flow of water in rivers and through soils; and analyse the water quality. You will collect meteorological data; examine cloud formations; measure the temperature of clouds and the lower atmosphere; and investigate relationships between weather and hydrology. Online study materials will introduce the field techniques that you will be using. See the Residential school section below for more details.

Vegetation and soils in the field – This compulsory three-day residential school will teach you how to describe and interpret vegetation and soils in the field. You will carry out three days of fieldwork in the heart of the Shropshire countryside near to the town of Shrewsbury, UK. The accommodation and laboratory work will be at a field centre set in 12 hectares of grassland and woodland. You will learn to identify plant species; map plant communities; investigate the properties of soils; and study the interactions between soils and vegetation in the upland environment of the Shropshire Hills. You will also learn to use GPS technology to assist your mapping work. Online study materials will introduce the field techniques that you will be using. See the Residential school section below for more details.

Method of study

During the course you will be required to use your own personal computer to access experiments and data, and to analyse and report results for the non-residential activities. You should be prepared to set aside several periods of up to half a day for completing some of the tasks. Therefore, to study this course successfully, you must be able to study regularly (for 8-10 hours per week) and have broadband access to the internet (for up to 4 hours per week) throughout the duration of the course.

Some tasks within the course will require scheduled interactions either with equipment or with your tutor group. Therefore this course may not be suitable for you if you are often unavailable for study for more than a week at a time. The end-of-module assessment (team project) will require working online in a group during the month of September, and if you are unavailable for study, or do not have regular access to a broadband internet connection, for more than a week during this time you may not be able to complete the course satisfactorily.

Team project

At the end of the course you will join a multidisciplinary team to complete a short project on contemporary practical science. You’ll work collaboratively with students from other courses in this Practical science series, using a variety of communication methods, including scheduled online forums.  Experience of this kind of professional teamwork is highly regarded by many employers.

Other practical science courses in this series

You must study one of the courses in this series as the practical element of our BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences and Diploma of Higher Education in Natural Sciences. This course Practical environmental science (SXE288) is a compulsory module in our BSc (Hons) Environmental Science.

You will learn

The practical skills developed in this course include:

  • planning and conducting observations and experiments
  • data handling
  • data presentation
  • report writing
  • safe working
  • professional team-working.

You will catalogue evidence of your achievement of these in a Skills Portfolio that forms part of the assessment.

Outside the UK

This course is open to students based outside the UK.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with your general progress, and who you can ask for academic advice and guidance. In addition, each practical activity will be supported by specialist tutors.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


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

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs).

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that started in February 2014 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:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
4 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
End-of-module assessment
Embedded residential school


This is a Level 2 course and you need to have a good knowledge of the subject area, obtained either through study with the OU, or by doing equivalent work at another university.

To complete this course successfully you do need some basic mathematical skills and experience of practical observations and measurements in a scientific context. An appropriate level of mathematical and scientific knowledge can be obtained by studying Exploring science (S104) and either Investigative and mathematical skills in science (S141) or Scientific investigations (S155) plus appropriate Level 2 courses.

You should have completed at least 60 credits of Level 2 study in the environment sciences before starting this course. We recommend that you study SXE288 as the final Level 2 module of your degree.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the course, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

Preparatory work

The early part (Blocks 1-4) of Environmental science (S216) is ideal preparation.
Please note that February 2014 will be the final start date for S216.


Start End Fee
- - -

No current presentation - see Future availability

This module is expected to start for the last time in February 2014.

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 annual fees and spreads them out over up to a year, enabling you to pay your fees monthly and walk away with a qualification without any further debt. 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 10 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.  

For more information about employer sponsorship speak to an adviser or request a call back.

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. 

Gift vouchers

You can pay for part or all of your tuition fees with OU gift vouchers. Vouchers are currently available in the following denominations, £10, £20, £50 and £100. 

Mixed payments

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

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or request a call back.

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 based upon current details for  year 1 August 2014 to 31 July 2015.
This information was provided on 26/07/2014.

What's included

The study and assessment materials will be delivered online, with the exception of a DVD-ROM.

The costs of the accommodation packages for the two residential activities are not included in the course fee. You will pay these directly to the venues you are attending. You will also be responsible for your own travel arrangements. See the Residential schools section above for details.

You will need

Broadband internet access is required for the non-residential activities and a digital camera is also highly desirable to record images of your work.

If you have a disability

Study material will be delivered entirely online and will include printable versions of web pages for students to use should they wish. Some Adobe PDF components may not be fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical and scientific materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Students with hearing impairments may have difficulty participating in the audio conferences but should be able to participate fully in online forum discussions. Written transcripts of audio- and audio-visual clips will be included in the study materials. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

Some aspects of this course are not fully accessible to all visually impaired students and studying them will require extra time and possibly use of a sighted helper. Students with manual dexterity problems may need assistance to complete some experiments. 

As the course is primarily web-based, you will need to make extensive use of a computer and the internet. If you use mobile technology, or specialist hardware or software to assist you in operating a computer or with the types of material outlined above you are advised to talk to the Student Registration & Enquiry Service about the support available to meet your needs.

At the residential schools you will be required to make and record observations in the field and to reinforce this with work in the laboratory. The days usually stretch from 09:00 to 21:00 with breaks for packed lunch and dinner.

Good manual dexterity and visual acuity are required. If your sight is severely impaired you are likely to require an assistant for the practical work as much of the work is centred on individual observations. Even with an assistant, it is unlikely that you will be able to participate fully in the fieldwork or to achieve the learning objectives.

The fieldwork means traversing a variety of terrains (often rough) and is likely to be extremely challenging or unsafe if your mobility is significantly restricted, or if you have a severe medical condition. You will be in the field for six full days (over the two schools) in all weathers, and you may need to walk several kilometres during the day. In general, if you’re able to make your way, with or without assistance, over dirt paths or, for distances of at least a few hundred metres, over grassland (sometimes up or down hill) or in woodlands, you should be able to participate in most of the programme. If your mobility is severely restricted, or if you are a wheelchair user, we request that you bring an assistant with you to the residential schools. If you’re likely to require medical attention or frequent toilet facilities during the fieldwork, this course may be restrictive for you. 

You may find it tiring to be outdoors for long spells. You can take rest breaks if you want to, by arrangement.

There will be some coach trips to field sites using centre transport, although some fieldwork will be conducted within walking distance of the field centre. It may be possible to arrange transport to get you to sites to which the physically active will walk.

Since the course assessment tests knowledge and skills gained from the fieldwork activities, they are compulsory and so you will not be able to pass the course without attendance at the residential activities. The venues will make every effort to accommodate additional requirements if they have sufficient notice but please note that it might not always be possible to fully meet your needs. It is therefore essential that you read the venue information on the residential school website, and make contact with the residential venues before selecting this module.

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.