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Earth science

This wide-ranging on-screen module introduces a scientific study of the Earth across the spectrum of scale, from shifting continents to the microscopic, and time from the 4.5 billion year age of the Earth to geological processes that happen in a flash. Your studies will include fossil life, erupting volcanoes, mountain building, and the record of Earth’s changing surface environments. The teaching materials will develop your practical skills using geological maps, microscopes, and many types of field data, alongside developing your general science and study skills. You’ll also learn fieldwork skills via virtual field trips or the optional four-day residential field school (for which there is additional cost).

What you will study

The module will give you fundamental knowledge about how the Earth works, and demonstrate the extent to which Earth science is a part of everyday life.

The online material in this module is particularly exciting and innovative as you use a virtual microscope and a digital kit (containing minerals, rocks and fossils) for interactive practical activities. It also teaches map work and field skills using a number of virtual field trips and integral 3D software. Following an introduction to the module the topics covered include: minerals, rocks - the basics, constructing geological histories from maps and landforms, fossils, sedimentary processes, sedimentary environments and their geological record, the solid Earth, volcanoes and magmas, recrystallizing the Earth, deforming the Earth, Cyprus case studies, and current issues in Earth science.

This module teaches field skills using home-based, online activities, available to all students, including virtual field trips, case studies and the chance to carry out a local, field-based or literature-based investigation.

Alternatively it offers an optional field school based at Blencathra Field Centre in Cumbria and which is run by the Field Studies Council. The four-day programme includes both outdoor exercises and follow-up laboratory work.  This field school carries additional charges even if you are eligible for financial support or funding your study with a Tuition Fee Loan.  You should therefore bear this in mind when considering the field school alternative.

You will learn

This module offers an exceptionally wide range of skills, many of which are transferable to other areas, as well as those you will need to progress to other modules in Earth, environmental and natural sciences. It will also enable you to be much better informed about, and enhance your understanding of, the physical world around you.

Professional recognition

If you are currently registered for an honours degree in Earth Science related subjects you may be entitled to apply for Candidate Fellowship of the Geological Society of London.

Entry requirements

You need to have a good knowledge of science and basic maths – check you’re ready, with our self-assessed quiz.

You’d normally be prepared by completing OU level 1 study as part of one of our science qualifications. For this module we recommend that you’ve passed Science: concepts and practice (S112), or its predecessor S104, as they give a broad foundation in the relevant science, maths and IT skills. Questions in Science (S111) and Environment: journeys through a changing world (U116) are also appropriate if you're confident in your maths skills. If you’re unsure about your maths skills, Maths for science (S151) will prepare you with the maths knowledge you need to study S209. If it's been a while since you studied an OU level 1 science module, we recommend you buy The Sciences Good Study Guide by A. Northedge et al. (2003, The Open University).

If you’re not sure you’re ready, talk to an adviser.

Preparatory work

Visit your local library for suggestions of good introductory texts on geology and earth science.

If you’ve studied S104, re-familiarise yourself with the geological principles and terminology in the earth science parts (Books 2 and 6).

What's included

Study materials, including activities and assessment, will be delivered online only.

You will need

You will need to draw diagrams, or to annotate by hand, diagrams that you download, and then use either a scanner or a digital camera to produce files of these diagrams to include in your assessment.

A printer is desirable, as is a headset with microphone or computer with built-in speakers and microphone.

You will also need to purchase two geological maps (costing about £15 in total) using a special order form on the module website.

If you take part in a local field tutorial, field-based investigation  or the optional 4-day residential school, you will require a hard hat (costing about £5).

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
  • 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. 

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be allocated a tutor who will help you with your general progress, and who you can ask for academic advice and guidance. In addition, you will receive support from other tutors and students in online forums on the module website.

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; however, it is currently under review, so they could change.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system.

Residential school

You’ll have the option to participate in a residential field school – run by the Field Studies Council on behalf of The Open University. This four-day programme includes both outdoor exercises and follow-up laboratory work. For those unable to attend, there are home-based, online activities.

S209 Geology is held in April at Blencathra Field Centre in Cumbria.

The additional cost for students starting in October 2017 is £350 – a £150 deposit when you book and £200 a few weeks before the field school. Booking will commence shortly before the module starts and will be accepted on a 'first-come-first-served' basis – further details will be given on the module website when it opens. You’ll also be responsible for the cost of travel to the venues.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S209 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

Earth science (S209) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2018. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2023.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

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