Science: concepts and practice
In this wholly online module, you’ll explore key ideas that underpin the study of science disciplines at higher level. Following a week exploring scale, each subsequent week focuses on an area of a particular discipline – biology, chemistry, earth science, environmental science and physics/astronomy. Materials and teaching are delivered online using a mix of interactive media; audio-visual, collaborative and independent activities. You’ll develop practical skills throughout the module, and in two distinct practical blocks – focusing on observation and control of variables – where you’ll choose activities suited to your interests. In the final five weeks you’ll choose two subject areas to study in more detail.
What you will study
Each week you’ll study a self-contained topic:
Topic 1: Scales in space and time
Scale – dealing with the miniscule to the massive, over milliseconds to millennia – is central to all the sciences. You’ll go to the absolute limits of what we can measure – all through a study of an oak tree!
Topic 2: Rocks: recycling the planet
You’ll use a digital collection of minerals and rocks to learn about the materials that make up the solid Earth; the processes by which they are transformed into rocks; and how rocks reveal their history.
Topic 3: Geological time
Earth is 4.6 billion years old. How do we know that? How do we know the history of life on Earth? You’ll gain an understanding of the methods that are used to determine relative and absolute ages of rocks and the processes that formed them.
Topic 4: Plate tectonics
Plate tectonics – the process that allows Earth’s interior, surface and atmosphere to interact – constantly reshapes the Earth. You’ll study evidence for the theory of plate tectonics, one of the most influential ideas in science.
Topic 5: Environmental cycles
Biogeochemical cycles describe how chemical elements cycle through living things and the physical environment. You’ll study three important cycles – water, carbon and nitrogen – and how human behaviour can disrupt them.
Topic 6: Ecological interactions
Ecosystems contain many interlinked biological components interacting with their physical environment, yet there are consistent patterns in the way energy flows through them. These patterns allow us to explore, describe and compare ecosystems, necessary for understanding disruptions.
Topic 7: Environmental change
Ecosystems react to environmental changes caused by both natural and human factors. You’ll learn about natural environmental change and what happens when an invasive species is introduced to an unprepared ecosystem. You’ll understand how we know that environmental change is taking place and how it can be managed.
Topic 8: Forces around you
Forces are central to the motion and stability of the world around us. You’ll learn how to identify and manipulate forces in a range of everyday situations.
Topic 9: An introduction to energy
Energy is another central concept which will be re-visited. This week looks at potential and kinetic energy and explores the concept of heat and temperature.
Topic 10: Material worlds
You’ll explore the materials which make up the world around you and learn how to describe and record your observations of the physical behaviour of materials. You’ll link the macroscopic world to the microscopic by examining the behaviour of the particles from which materials are formed.
Topic 11: The quantum world
Quantum mechanics is a big idea for understanding the world of atoms. You’ll learn how this is important for processes in physics, chemistry and even biology.
Topic 12: Why chemical reactions happen
You’ll explore chemical change through understanding how particles interact and rearrange, and learn the rules that govern these interactions, allowing you to make predictions about chemical behaviour.
Topic 13: Make me a molecule
You’ll discover how knowledge of the microscopic world enables new materials to be created and how everyday items can be both made, and made better.
Topic 14: Energy in chemistry and the life sciences
Beginning with the nature of chemical bonds in simple molecules, you’ll explore how living cells transform and distribute energy, why we can’t run marathons as fast as we sprint 100 m, and the amazing capability of our eyes and ears as detectors of light and sound waves.
Topic 15: DNA: life’s replicating book of recipes
You’ll learn about the twin functions of DNA, as store of the information required for life, and as a molecule capable of replication, allowing its information to be inherited.
Topic 16: Proteins: how DNA makes life
Proteins are the means by which inherited information is turned into life. This topic provides an introduction into how these fascinating molecules are made and the myriad of essential functions they carry out.
Topic 17: The multicellular organism: cells in harmony
The basic unit of life is the cell; most plants and animals are multicellular organisms. You’ll learn how, in a multicellular organism, different cell types are produced from the same set of instructions, and how the health of multicellular organisms depends on each of these cell types working together.
Topic 18: Energy in society
In your third look at energy you’ll explore the science of powering the world! You’ll look at fossil fuels, nuclear energy and renewable energy, and will meet one of the most famous equations in science, E = mc2.
You’ll also choose two topics that you find most interesting or are going to study at higher level. You’ll go on to complete investigations tasks on your chosen topics, and pick one to prepare a short presentation on:
- Biodiversity and evolution – Life on Earth is diverse. To discover why you’ll learn about the relationship between an organism and its environment, and how intense competition between organisms really does make life all about ‘the survival of the fittest’.
- How chemical reactions happen – You’ll consider the driving forces that cause new molecules to be made and gain a deeper understanding of the role that energy and entropy play in chemical processes.
- The Earth: from atmosphere to core – Much of planet Earth cannot be seen, so how do Earth scientists find out about its inaccessible interior? You’ll learn how the answers can come from chance events such as earthquakes as well as planned experiments and a study of the rocks at the surface.
- Living in a changing climate – Earth’s climate is changing. How do we know what is happening and how can we predict what might happen in the future? How big are the challenges we face and who should we believe when there are conflicting statements about climate change? You’ll learn how to make an informed decision about our priorities for a more sustainable future.
- Components of the universe – This topic addresses the Universe, from the smallest asteroid to the largest galaxies. You’ll discover a missing component to the Universe, taking you right to the edge of current research.
The two distinct practical blocks cover (1) observation and (2) controlling variables. In the first, you’ll explore making observations and accurately recording them. You’ll take weather station readings and, in a team of fellow students, access a weather-data archive to address a question posed by your tutor. You’ll also undertake an online experiment from your choice of scientific discipline. In the second, you’ll take part in a group activity. You’ll then have the choice of one activity from biology; chemistry; physics; earth science; or environmental science and ecology.
You will learn
A key aim of the module is to continue your development as an independent learner so that when confronted by something you don’t know, your response is ‘I don’t know that, how can I find out about it?’, rather than ‘I haven’t been taught that.’ So, alongside developing your understanding of key concepts in the various sciences, to enable you to embrace new ideas with increasing confidence, you’ll develop the following skills:
- communication skills
- collaboration skills
- observation, investigation and practical skills
- mathematical skills
- information gathering, analytical and interpretative skills
- reflective practice around your skills development.
You need appropriate scientific knowledge or experience.
S112 is a bridge between introductory OU level 1 modules and higher level study. It develops the core subject knowledge and study skills needed for higher education and distance learning within scientific and related disciplines. You’d normally be prepared by completing introductory OU level 1 study as part of one of our science qualifications, having passed Questions in science (S111) or Science and health (SDK100). If you’ve studied a different introductory STEM module (such as Environment: journeys through a changing world (U116)), you’ll be ready to study S112, but will need to use more of your self-directed study time reading around the module materials, particularly at the start.
You should 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; create, save and retrieve documents using basic word processing skills; and use a scanner, digital camera or smartphone to produce electronic images of any hand drawn course work.
If you’re not sure you’re ready, talk to an adviser.
The study materials, study guide, activities, assignments, forums, online tutorial rooms and other resources are all provided on 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
You will need a computer with internet access throughout, to read the online text; to engage with the online activities, tutorials and student forums; to upload evidence of your home experiment results; to keep up to date with module news items; and to access your other study materials, including the module assignments.
A digital camera is recommended to record images of your work. You may use the camera on a smartphone instead (or, in some instances, a scanner), but whatever you use, you should be confident in producing digital versions of your work. You may need to draw diagrams or graphs and then use either a scanner or a digital camera to produce files of these diagrams for inclusion in your assessments.
You will need 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 is not suitable as your only calculator for this module.
You may find it useful to have a notebook and pen for note taking and working out your answers to self-assessment questions and activities.
You will need a headset, with a microphone and earphones, to get the most out of your online tutorials and for the oral presentation elements of the module. Presentation skills are an important part of S112; for this reason you will also need a modern version of Microsoft Office (or the freely available OpenOffice package) installed on your computer.
The module includes some simple home experiments which will require some basic kitchen or garden equipment, 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; an unwanted compact disc (CD or DVD); items of fruit or vegetables; offcuts of cardboard. If you are unable to undertake the experiments we will provide alternative ways to enable you to take part in the experiment.
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
- macOS 10.7 or higher
The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.
To participate in our online-discussion area you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones.
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.