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Contemporary topics in science

This innovative and flexible module uses OpenLearn and other Open University content. You’ll choose from a list of topics across all science disciplines; you can focus on one topic in depth or study three shorter topics. You might wish to learn about autism, nutrition, chemistry, citizen science – or astronomy with a remotely operated telescope! The end-of-module assessment explores your science understanding and the skills you’ve developed to be a successful science student.

Standalone study only

This module is available for standalone study only. Any credits from this module cannot be counted towards an OU qualification.


Module code




  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.

Study level

Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
Level of Study
1 7 4

Study method

Module cost

Entry requirements

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What you will study

This flexible, wholly online module allows you to focus in depth on a single topic or to study a selection of three shorter science topics.

Single topic choices include:

Galaxies, stars and planets
This topic explains how the Sun gets its energy, how astronomers observe the Sun and its interior, as well as introducing the planets and their satellites.

Molecules, medicines and drugs: a chemical story
Focus on the chemistry that underlies the development of drugs and medicines that relieve pain and effect cures. And how drugs interact with and affect their target areas in the human body.

Plants and people
Explore the role plants play in our lives, in food, biofuels, bioplastics and medicines – as well as their role in combating climate change.

The frozen planet
Explore the wonder of the polar world and learn how ice has shaped and controls our planet.

Alternatively, you can combine any three shorter topics from the following:

An introduction to exoplanets
Consider the planets beyond our Solar System. Could there be life on them? In this topic, you’ll explore the fascinating new era of exoplanet studies.

Astronomy with an online telescope
Develop a hands-on understanding of telescopic observations using the Open University’s own robotic telescope facility COAST. You’ll learn about stars: what they are, how they produce light, and their evolution over time.

Citizen science and global biodiversity
Focus on biodiversity and explore how anyone can contribute to and be involved in identifying and recording wildlife, as a citizen scientist.

Discovering chemistry
This topic introduces some fundamental chemistry: from atoms, chemical elements, and the Periodic Table to chemical reactions and the formation of large molecules.

Microgravity: living on the International Space Station
Focus on the physics of microgravity environments, including the International Space Station. You’ll discover how microgravity environments are used to study ageing, quantum physics, bacterial resistance and planet formation, as well as consider moral questions such as the cost of space exploration.

Moons of our Solar System
Learn about the fundamental processes that have shaped moons, the relationship between our Moon and Earth, and the space missions that have taught us about moons. You’ll discover the amazing diversity of moons in our Solar System.

The science of alcohol
Learn the chemistry and biology behind the production of alcoholic drinks. How are flavours generated? How do scientists ensure the safety of what we drink? You’ll explore the long- and short-term effects of alcohol on our bodies.

The science of nutrition and healthy eating
This topic introduces the biology, chemistry and physics behind nutrition. Are we really what we eat? How do we know what is in our food?

Understanding antibiotic resistance
Explore the history of antibiotics. How do antibiotics work? What is antibiotic resistance and how does it spread?

Understanding autism
This topic introduces the autism spectrum, how it’s experienced by different individuals and families, and why it’s a global concern. You’ll learn how ideas about autism have evolved and explore diagnosis, causes, intervention and life-span development.

You will learn

This module lets you focus your learning on topics that are of interest to you. Alongside developing your understanding of some key scientific concepts, it will enable you to practice and improve your written communication skills. In addition, as this module is delivered online, your online-learning skills will develop. You’ll also participate in reflective practice around your skills development.

Vocational relevance

By studying this module, you’ll improve your scientific knowledge as well as your skills to communicate science-related information. You’ll also develop your use of digital tools in an online environment. As an independent learner, you’ll demonstrate the ability to plan and reflect on your learning. All these skills are very useful, not only for further study, but also in interviewing and employment.

Teaching and assessment


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.


Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help from study advisors via the module forum. They’ll help you by:

  • guiding you to additional learning resources
  • providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content
  • facilitating online discussions between your fellow students in the dedicated module forum.

Future availability

Contemporary topics in science (SXM150) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2024.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

Course work includes:

End-of-module assessment

Entry requirements

At The Open University, we believe education should be open to all, so we provide high-quality university education to anyone who wishes to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.

Even though there are no entry requirements, you’ll need:

  • an interest in science and the motivation to discover more
  • basic maths skills – the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide simple numbers
  • the ability to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper.


Start End England fee Register
05 Oct 2024 See description £606.00

Registration closes 19/09/24 (places subject to availability)

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2027.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as set books, a computer and internet access.

If your income is not more than £25,000 or you receive a qualifying benefit, you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Joint loan applications

If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU courses are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to complete. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the module you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your module.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and, therefore, the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fee information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2025. Fees typically increase annually. For further information about the University's fee policy, visit our Fee Rules

This information was provided on 14/06/2024.

Can you study an Access module for free?

Depending on eligibility and availability of places, you could apply to study your Access module for free.

To qualify, you must:

  1. be resident in England
  2. have a household income of less than £25,000 (or be in receipt of a qualifying benefit)
  3. have not completed one year or more on any full-time undergraduate programme at FHEQ level 4 or above or successfully completed 30 credits or more of OU study within the last 10 years

How to apply to study an Access module for free

Once you've started the registration process, either online or over the phone, we'll contact you about your payment options. This will include instructions on how you can apply to study for free if you are eligible and funded places are still available.

If you're unsure if you meet the criteria to study for free, you can check with one of our friendly advisers on +44 (0)300 303 0069, or you can request a call back.

Not eligible to study for free?

Don't worry! We offer a choice of flexible ways to help spread the cost of your Access module. The most popular options include:

  • monthly payments through OUSBA
  • part-time tuition fee loan (you'll need to be registered on a qualification for this option)

To explore all the options available to you, visit Fees and Funding.

What's included

You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assessment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • an online forum where you can talk with other students and get support.

This course is delivered entirely online.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11). Any macOS is unsuitable with this module.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.