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Science: concepts and practice

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In this module, you’ll explore the ideas that underpin the study of science disciplines at a higher level. Following a week exploring scale, each subsequent week focuses on a particular area – biology, chemistry, earth science, environmental science and physics/astronomy. Online materials and teaching include interactive and audio-visual media combined with collaborative and independent activities. You’ll develop practical skills throughout and in two distinct 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, including the following:

Scales in space and time
Scale – dealing with the minuscule 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The quantum realm
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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: 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.

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 appropriate scientific knowledge or experience obtained through:

  • OU level 1 and 2 study
  • equivalent work at another higher education institution.

You’ll need the ability 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
  • use your phone camera or scanner to produce electronic images of hand-drawn coursework.

Are you ready for S112?

Preparatory work

We recommend you’ve completed:

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, instructions and guidance
  • online tutorial access
  • access to student and tutor group forums.

Where possible, the materials are also available in other formats including pdf and Microsoft Word. The purchase of 'print-on-demand' texts will not be an option for this module.

You will need

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.

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.

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) or macOS Ventura or higher.

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.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • 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 and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


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

Three of the six TMAs will be composed largely of activities you will do as part of your weekly studies, with little extra work required. The practical blocks will have one TMA each associated with them, assessing practical and collaborative skills. The final TMA will focus on a presentation.

The examination will be based around materials such as articles, data, figures and graphs. These materials will be available in advance to help you prepare. As well as assessing your knowledge and skills, the examination is designed to be a simple introduction to taking examinations at university level. It will give you practice ahead of examinations that you will meet in your further studies and which will have a bearing on the classification of your degree.

Laboratory schools

The School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences offers optional laboratory schools in Milton Keynes at an additional cost. Laboratory schools are not part of this module but may be of interest if you wish to gain relevant hands-on laboratory experience.

Further information and instructions for booking are on the SS011 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 S112 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

Science: concepts and practice (S112) 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 2026.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)

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