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Questions in science

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This introductory science module encompasses astronomy and planetary science; biology; chemistry; earth and environmental sciences; and physics. A series of questions, starting with ‘Can you make a hole in water? and ‘How do you know what is alive?’, teaches scientific thinking. You will undertake a number of practical experiments, both ‘hands-on’ in your own home and online. This module is the entry point for the natural sciences degree, and develops generic study skills, maths skills and investigative skills alongside key concepts in science.

What you will study

This module consists of 11 topics, most of which are phrased as questions to highlight the key scientific skill of enquiry. The final topic, ‘Bad science’ brings together the principles of good science practice that you will have learnt throughout the module. 
Topic 1: Can you make a hole in water?
Water is essential for life as we know it and water has many special properties singling it out from other substances, making it of interest to all scientists. This topic will introduce you to some fascinating science including chemistry, earth sciences and physics. 
Topic 2: How do you know what is alive?
This topic will focus on the biological functions which are used to define 'life'. First you learn about the diversity of living things, and what living organisms are made up of. You will learn about the basic functions of life; growth, reproduction, metabolism, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment. 
Topic 3: Why does it snow in winter? 
You will gain a basic understanding of what makes the weather on earth, and its seasonal cycle. The topic starts with forces, then investigates gravity, and the orbit of Earth around the Sun, and the Moon around Earth. Finally the topic looks at how these forces combine together to give earth its distinctive climatic zones.

Topic 4: Is there life on Mars?
Life can be found all over the earth, with a huge range of diversity and abundance. Some organisms have developed ways to live and thrive in extreme environments such as hot deserts or deep oceans. Knowing how these organisms survive enables us to consider whether life might exist on Mars.
Topic 5: Why do metals corrode?
This topic explores the main characteristic properties of metals. You will look at the chemical interactions of metals with different surrounding environments (in air, soil and water) and how the reactivity of different metals varies greatly. Easy ways of preventing metal deterioration will be also discussed. You will build a battery using galvanized nails and copper wire and carry out simple chemistry experiments with copper coins and iron nails. 
Topic 6: How similar am I to a plant?
The diverse array of organisms that exist on earth seem to have very little in common, apart from being ‘alive’ as described in Topic 2. You will learn about the principles of inheritance and genetics and you will be asked to consider how different humans are from each other and to investigate this yourself.  
Topic 7: Does the earth move under your feet?
The earth is very diverse, yet we do see similarities between separate parts of world in the geology, and the species living there. How has this come about? Is it the result of moving plants and animals or a moving earth? This topic discusses the different mechanisms underlying the movement and distribution of organisms around the world, including ocean and wind currents, continental drift and sea-level change, as well as the role of humans and the influence of evolution. 
Topic 8: Are waves everywhere?
What are waves and how do they form? This topic is all about conservation of energy and restoring forces. There are waves you can see as well as waves you cannot see. You will develop an understanding of what waves are, and why and how they happen, as well as how we as humans can exploit some of their properties.
Topic 9: Can we lead a chemical-free life?
This topic examines some common misconceptions, responsible for turning the word chemical into a shorthand for “unpleasant additive". Are synthetic chemicals dangerous? Are natural chemicals better for us? We look at chemicals within the Earth and their use as ‘natural resources’; at chemicals in our diet and inside our homes; and at chemicals as treatments for disease. This topic includes a home experiment on toxicity and a field trip to survey the ‘health’ of a local water body.
Topic 10: Why does the sun shine?
The Sun provides the energy necessary for life on Earth but how does it work? We look at the physical properties of our own star and the physical processes that power it.  In the latter part of this topic we examine the Sun in a wider astronomical context, relating it to other stars, examining its evolution and death in the far future and the intimate role played by the death of stars in the birth of life.
Topic 11: What is ‘Bad Science’?
The module concludes with a look at the ethics of scientific experimentation; a discussion of good practice in experimentation to ensure results are unbiased and scientifically sound. This final topic leads to the final piece of assessment which looks back over experiments undertaken throughout the module.

You will learn

Scientists have questioning minds and this fundamental skill is developed by this module. You will learn key scientific concepts, develop your own scientific thinking and, by the end of the module, you will be a confident, independent learner. You will develop skills of scientific investigation through practical experimentation and share your findings with other students. An important part of this module is the development of your key mathematical skills, crucial for scientific analysis and explanation. As this module is entirely online, your skills for learning online will also be developed.

Entry requirements

This is a key introductory OU level 1 module. OU level 1 modules provide core subject knowledge and study skills needed for both higher education and distance learning, to help you to progress towards OU level 2 study.

The module is designed for students who are new to science as well as those with some background in a science-related subject. Although you’re not expected to have any previous knowledge of science, you should be able to do simple calculations (add, subtract, multiply and divide whole numbers) and to understand written English of the standard of a broadsheet newspaper (for example The Daily Telegraph or The Guardian). You should also be able to write clearly and concisely, structuring short pieces of writing so that they flow coherently; log on to the internet, find websites and communicate by email; and create, save and retrieve documents using basic word processing skills.

If you haven’t studied science or maths up to GCSE level fairly recently, or you’re new to using a computer to access online resources, you may need to spend slightly longer on the study materials. An adviser will be able to discuss with you how much extra time you are likely to need and whether you should consider completing an OU Access module or some preparatory study before beginning this module.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully and get the most enjoyment out of the module. To help you decide whether you already have the background knowledge or experience to start the module we have an interactive quiz Are you ready to study S111?

By the end of the module you will be expected to be working successfully at the level required of first-year undergraduate students. Successful completion of this module will equip you to go on to study Science: concepts and practice (S112), for our BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences (Q64) or Essential mathematics 1 and 2 (MST124 and MST125) for the BSc (Hons) Physics and Mathematics (Q77).

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

What's included

The study materials, study guide, activities, assignments, forums, online tutorial rooms and other resources are all provided via a dedicated website. Where possible the materials are also available in other formats including PDF, EPUB, interactive ebook (EPUB3), Kindle ebook and Microsoft Word should you wish to study on mobile devices. Note: The purchase of ‘print-on-demand’ texts will not be an option for this module. 

You will need

A digital camera1 – to take photographs of your experiments and upload images.

A simple scientific calculator – of the type sold as suitable for GCSE/A level use in any large supermarket. The calculator on a mobile phone, tablet or computer isn’t suitable as your only calculator for this module.

Some basic kitchen, DIY or garden equipment – for simple home experiments – including (but not restricted to):

  • a kitchen weighing scale
  • a means of freezing water
  • re-usable plastic and glass containers of various sizes
  • a clock or watch
  • galvanised nails
  • copper wire
  • electrical cable
  • items of fruit or vegetables
  • offcuts of cardboard

It’s difficult to estimate the cost of buying the home experiment items, as you probably already own some of them. At 2019 prices, we’ve estimated the cost of all the resources to be £56 (or £1.87 per study week). Many of the items can be bought as a kit from the OU Students Shop.

If you’re unable to undertake the experiments, and they form part of the assessment, we’ll provide alternative ways to enable you to take part.

1A scanner is recommended for uploading drawn images.

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either:

  • Windows 7 or higher
  • Mac OS X 10.7 or higher

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be assigned a named tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for academic advice and guidance. If you are new to The Open University, you will find that your tutor is particularly concerned with helping you with your study methods. Your tutor will also offer support through email, phone and online forum discussions. There will be face to face and online tutorials that we would recommend you book into and attend. The tutorials will be advertised before the module starts and will be taken by the module tutors, but not necessarily your own named tutor.

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).

Residential school

S111, S112 and SM123 students have the choice to attend a laboratory school run by The Open University. These three-day programmes focus on laboratory work.

SS011 Laboratory Skills for Science is in July at The Open University in Milton Keynes.

For students who started S111 in October 2018, the additional cost is £190 – we expect to confirm the cost for students starting S111 in October 2019 by July. You must also pay for travel to and from the venue, accommodation, and food.

Booking will begin in early February – further details will be on the module website.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S111 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Questions in science (S111) starts twice a year – in February and October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2019 and February 2020. We expect it to start for the last time in February 2024.

Course work includes:

7 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
10 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No examination
No residential school

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