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Practical science: biology and health

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The activities in this module explore a range of topics in biology and health sciences, from fundamental human and animal behaviour to the vital themes of genetic variation and water quality. Online – from the comfort of your own home – you'll conduct investigations in various laboratories, in combinations of observation and experiment. You'll develop a portfolio of practical and investigative skills as you study that will contribute to your end-of-module assessment. At the end of the module you'll work collaboratively with fellow students on a team project.

What you will study

Skilled scientists reveal underlying relationships by devising questions that can be addressed safely; they report effectively and critically evaluate their findings. By studying this module you will develop and be able to demonstrate these skills.

You will carry out practical activities that you can do online, in and around your own home and that fall under the following four areas:

  • Attention and the brain
  • Animal physiology: cold adaptation
  • Drug metabolism and genetic variation
  • Water quality monitoring

Attention and the brain explores practical approaches to the study of attention. It will introduce you to practical experiments that examine how the brain functions, as well as to the careful considerations required when conducting experiments of this nature. You will conduct a study with human participants and an online, virtual experiment based on published laboratory data on animal attention. You will examine the ethical implications for both of these forms of experimental behavioural research.

In Animal physiology: cold adaptation you will investigate mammalian physiological processes using a model of acclimatisation to a cold environment. You will gain insight into the physiological and biochemical bases for adipose tissue function in thermogenesis; the process by which heat is released in the body. Using a digital microscope, you will study the anatomy and histology of adipose tissues to determine how they change with adaptation to a cold environment. You will also carry out several investigations of the biochemical changes in this tissue.

Drug metabolism and genetic variation examines how a person’s genetic make-up determines how quickly the antidepressant nortriptyline is metabolised in the body. You’ll complete a series of online experiments to estimate the purity and concentration of human DNA samples and then carry out genetic assays to determine the frequencies of gene variants within various human populations and relate these to metaboliser status.

In Water quality monitoring you will complete a series of online investigations and interactive screen experiments to assess some different aspects of water quality that are important to human health, including assessing the microbiological safety of drinking water. You'll carry one of these out as a team activity.

Method of study

During the module you will be required to use your own personal computer to access experiments and data, and to analyse and report results for the online 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 module 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 module.

Some tasks within the module will require scheduled interactions with your tutor group. Therefore this module 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 a period from the end of April until the end of the module, 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 module satisfactorily.

Team project

At the end of the module you will work collaboratively with the other students on this module using a variety of communication methods, including scheduled online forums, to carry out a team project that will require you to draw on what you will have learned in the study of one or more of the practical activities.  Experience of this kind of professional teamwork is highly regarded by many employers.

You will learn

The practical and employability skills developed in this module include:

  • planning and conducting observations and experiments
  • data handling
  • data presentation
  • report writing
  • awareness of research ethics
  • professional team-working.

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

Entry requirements

To complete this module successfully you do need some basic mathematical skills and experience of practical observations and measurements in a scientific context. You’ll acquire these from the OU level 1 and OU level 2 modules in the following qualifications:

  • BSc (Honours) Health Sciences (Q71)
  • Diploma of Higher Education in Health Sciences (W44)
  • BSc (Honours) Natural Sciences
  • Diploma in Higher Education in Natural Sciences (W37).

However, you should have included at least 60 credits of OU level 2 study in the biological/health science.

Outside of these qualifications, you’ll obtain an appropriate level of scientific knowledge by studying:

  • Questions in science (S111) and Science: concepts and practice (S112), or
  • the discontinued modules Exploring science (S104) and Investigative and mathematical skills in science (S141), or
  • Science and health: an evidence based approach (SDK100) and the discontinued module Topics in science (S142).

Before starting this module, you should also have completed at least 60 credits of OU level 2 study from the following modules:

  • Cell biology (S294)
  • Chemistry: essential concepts (S215)
  • Human biology (SK299)
  • The biology of survival (S295)
  • Analytical science (S240) and Human Biology (SK277).

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

What's included

Study and assessment materials will be delivered online.

You will need

A digital camera is highly desirable to record images of your work.

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 Windows 7 or higher
  • The screen 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 your general progress, and whom you can ask for academic advice and guidance. In addition, each practical activity will be supported by specialist 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 above.

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

Residential school

S294, S295, SK299 and SXHL288 students have the choice to attend a laboratory school run by The Open University. These four-day programmes focus on laboratory work.

SS022 – Laboratory skills for biology and health is in June at The Open University in Milton Keynes.

For students who started SXHL288 in October 2018, the additional cost is £230 – we expect to confirm the cost for students starting SXHL288 in October 2019 by July. You must also pay for venue and from the venue, accommodation, and food.

Booking will begin in April – 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 SXHL288 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

Practical science: biology and health (SXHL288) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2019. It will start for the last time in October 2019. A new module, Investigating human health and disease (S290) is planned to start for the first time in October 2020.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

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