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Environmental science

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This on-screen module spans biology, chemistry, earth science and physics, drawing them together in a holistic approach to studying the environment. You’ll investigate air, water, earth, life and cycles and explore the processes, interactions and feedback mechanisms operating within different environments. Practical experiences provided through multimedia interactive ‘virtual’ field trip activities and two three-day residential field schools allow you to develop skills and apply your learning. By the end, you will be able to make critical analyses of environmental processes and structures, e.g. landforms, soils, water flows and habitats of flora and fauna, and comment on anthropogenic influences and their likely consequences.

What you will study

In this wide-ranging module you will learn about aspects of biology, chemistry, earth science and physics that can be applied to the study of the environment. But there is much more. The holistic nature of environmental science is stressed through studying the many links that operate between different environments.

To enrich and contextualise your studies, during each block you will apply what you have learnt to a series of topics which will allow you to explore specific environments, address environmental phenomena and processes or investigate environmental issues. These include: the oceans and ice, atmospheric chemistry, habitat conservation and eutrophication.

Online activities are used to support and reinforce your learning. Throughout your studies, you will take part in a virtual field trip to the catchment area of the River Teign in south Devon, in the UK. You will make observations and collect data about weather, landforms, rocks and soils, water flows and water analysis, and vegetation habitats, and assess the effect of human influences on the area.

The module centres on five subjects – Water, Air, Earth, Life and Cycles:

Block 1: Water
Water looks at the hydrological cycle, following the fate of rain as it falls, looking at different modes of interception and how they are measured. This is followed by a study of rivers: flows and changes in water composition as it moves from river source to ocean. Water also flows through and resides in the ground, and here you will investigate the interaction of this water with soils, at aquifers and springs. In this topic you will also look at water quality, water analysis and how we use water as a resource.

Block 2: Air
Air looks at the influence the atmosphere has on conditions at the earth’s surface. You’ll explore the components of air and how they interact with one another and with the earth, as well as the properties and phenomena that make up an everyday notion of the ‘weather’.

Block 3: Earth
Next you will look at aspects of earth: rocks, landforms and soils. The topic starts by seeing how rocks are formed with different compositions, in a variety of environments. This is followed by a study of weathering: rocks and the minerals of which they are composed undergo physical and chemical (and some biological) erosion, forming insoluble fragments and soluble ions. Natural environmental processes such as weathering and erosion are responsible for the evolution of landscapes and so this topic continues with an investigation of landforms. Finally, you will look at soils, which are more than simply a growing medium for plants; on land they are the critical interface between the organic and inorganic environments.

Block 4: Life
In this block you will study the variability of species distribution in different habitats, together with the fundamentals of sampling. In addition you will explore the requirements for growth for a variety of flora and fauna, along with the ability of an environment to supply these resources.

Block 5: Cycles
The last block widens the scope of the module to look at the earth’s overall systems. The rock cycle, biogeochemical cycles over short and long terms and the element cycles of carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus are some of the aspects you will cover in this block.

Practical work
In March and April you’ll participate in outdoor exercises and follow-up laboratory work at two residential field schools – Hydrology and meteorology in the field and Vegetation and soils in the field.

Hydrology and meteorology in the field – This compulsory three-day residential field school concentrates on how to collect and interpret hydrological and meteorological data in the field. You will study a local catchment; investigating the flow of water in rivers and through soils. You will collect meteorological data; examine cloud formations; and investigate relationships between weather and hydrology.

Vegetation and soils in the field – This compulsory three-day residential field school will teach you how to describe and interpret vegetation and soils in the field. You will learn to identify plant species; map plant communities; investigate the properties of soils; and study the interactions between soils and vegetation. You will also learn to use GPS technology to assist your mapping work.

These field schools will be held in the UK at the Field Studies Council centres at Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales National Park; at Preston Montford in the heart of the Shropshire countryside near to the town of Shrewsbury; and at Nettlecombe Court at the eastern edge of Exmoor National Park in Somerset. Satisfactory completion of both field schools is required if you want to gain credit for this module.

Further details are given in the Residential school section below.

Entry requirements

You need to have a good knowledge of science and basic maths – check if you’re ready for SXF206, with our self-assessed quiz.

As part of an environmental science qualification, you should have studied the OU level 1 module Science: concepts and practice (S112) – or the discontinued module Exploring science (S104) – to make sure your scientific knowledge and skills are at the right level for SXF206. You should also have studied Environment: journeys through a changing world (U116) as this teaches many of the skills and scientific concepts developed in SXF206, and gives you an appreciation of how to approach issues from a multidisciplinary perspective. If it has been a while since you studied an OU level 1 science module, we advise you to buy The Sciences Good Study Guide by A. Northedge et al. (2003, The Open University).

If you would like an idea of what the module involves before you register, you can access free from OpenLearn a section from the first block called ‘The oceans’.

If you’re not sure you’re ready, talk 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. 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.

You will need

You may 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 for inclusion in your assessment.

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 have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We offer online group tutorials that you should participate in. 

During the module, you will also be given the opportunity to attend a day long field trip to support your studies. This field work is part of the optional tutorial programme offered by the module tutors

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.1

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

1We previously advertised this module as having an exam. From October 2019, the exam will be replaced by an end-of-module assignment.

Residential school

To pass this module you must take part in two residential field schools – the Field Studies Council run them both on behalf of The Open University. These three-day programmes include both outdoor exercises and follow-up laboratory work. In most cases, we offer the two field schools as back-to-back one-week combined schools.

Hydrology and meteorology in the field and Vegetation and soils in the field are in March and April at Malham Tarn Field Centre in Yorkshire, Preston Montford Field Centre in Shropshire, and Nettlecombe Court in Somerset.

For students starting SXF206 in October 2019, the additional cost of each school is £147, so £294 for a combined one-week school. You must also pay for travel to and from the venue.

If you’re in receipt of benefits or have a household income of £25,000 or less, you could be eligible for a bursary to cover the cost of tuition, accommodation and meals. Find out how to apply on the module website, which will open for registered students on 10 September.

Booking will begin in early October. You’ll use the Field Studies Council website to book places at both schools and will need to pay a £80 deposit for each school at the time of booking, with the balance due a few weeks before each school. Further details will be on the module website.

Satisfactory attendance is compulsory to pass this module. There’s no alternative learning experience, so it’s essential you‘re able to attend both field schools. If you’ll require a visa to travel to the UK, please contact us

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying SXF206 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

Environmental science (SXF206) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2019. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2023.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
Embedded residential school

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