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Chemistry in life: food, water and medicines

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Explore how fundamental chemistry relates to food, water and medicines – all key to modern life. You’ll learn by developing your problem-solving skills in chemistry and through experimental investigations. Learn about the role chemists play in developing a more sustainable future and how they solve problems related to human health. By the end, you’ll understand the structures and roles of food components, how drinking water is purified, and how drug molecules are designed and function.

What you will study

This online module has three blocks. They’ll develop your understanding of key chemical concepts, whilst you discover the role of chemistry in human health and sustainability. At key points, experts from industry discuss the context of the chemistry under discussion.

Block 1: Food
This block introduces you to the relationship between nutrition, food production processes, and chemistry. You’ll see how an understanding of molecular properties can be used to explain why we need food; what the body does with it; and how raw materials can be processed to make products for the food industry. You’ll study the chemical properties of the food groups (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals) which will allow you to understand interplay between molecular structure and chemical behaviour. You’ll then study food digestion; how the body extracts energy from food; and how food energy content is measured. The block finishes with a home experiment, in which you will synthesise and analyse the degradation of a sustainable food packaging material.

Block 2: Water
This block focuses on water as it plays a ubiquitous role in our daily lives. You’ll study the unique properties of water in a fundamental sense. You’ll begin by studying pH, buffers and buffering, antacids and why some substances are strong or weak acids. Alongside this, you’ll remotely access apparatus at the OU campus to measure the acidity of a compound. In the next section. you’ll focus on other substances that are commonly dissolved in water (soaps, detergents, antibacterials and metal ions), further studying the close relationship between chemical properties and function. You’ll also address the issue of environmental sustainability through the study of drinking water and waste-water treatment.

Block 3: Health
The block starts with a home experiment investigation relating to sustainable approaches to water purification. The focus of this block then shifts to medicines. You’ll learn about the drug discovery process and how drug molecules are designed. In doing this, you’ll see the key structural features and chemical properties of different classes of drug molecules. You’ll study the interactions between drug molecules and their receptors, which will bring together much of the chemical thinking you developed in the module. You’ll also study drug absorption, allowing you to gain an understanding of how particular drugs must be administered. Your learning will be supported throughout the block by extensive use of the Protein Data Bank. This will enable you to visualise in three dimensions how drugs interact with their targets (receptors or enzymes) and interrogate the nature of the molecular interactions.

You will learn

As well as studying key conceptual skills relating to chemistry, you’ll also develop your skills for further study of science including:

  • investigation
  • numeracy
  • problem solving
  • handling and presenting data
  • collaboration
  • communication.

Entry requirements

There are no formal entry requirements for this module.

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 appropriate knowledge of biology or chemistry obtained through:

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

Are you ready for S248?

Preparatory work

We recommend you’ve completed:

You’ll be able to access the module website 2–3 weeks before the module starts, so you can learn to navigate the website and organise your study plan. A module primer contains the basic concepts you should understand. You can use this primer to refresh your knowledge before starting your studies or as a resource throughout.

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
  • assignment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access.

You’ll also have access to the OpenSTEM Labs, where you’ll conduct some of your experiments.

You will need

You may need either a scanner or a digital camera to produce files of diagrams or graphs you’ve drawn to include with your assessments.

Some equipment – for simple home experiments – including (but not restricted to):

  • microwave or small pan
  • electronic balance or measuring spoons
  • mobile phone (with a camera) that can download apps
  • everyday chemicals such as starch, glycerol, food dye, washing soda, white vinegar, citric acid
  • transparent plastic or glass vessels and a measuring jug
  • silicone muffin cases or aluminium trays
  • oven gloves or tongs
  • PPE: apron/lab coat, gloves, laboratory glasses
  • scissors.

It’s difficult to estimate the cost of buying the home experiment items, as you probably already own some of them.

You’ll also need to buy a molecule modelling kit (cost: £20-£40). Examples of kits are:

  • MMS-008 or MMS-004 from Molymod
  • Organic and inorganic student set (0073), from Cochranes of Oxford.

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 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 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.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S248 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

Chemistry in life: food, water and medicines (S248) 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 2028.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)