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Earth processes

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Earth processes is an innovative on-screen module presenting an appealing set of societally relevant Earth science topics: events in Earth history (e.g. Noah’s flood and death of the dinosaurs); mountain building, oceans, volcanoes and remote observation, sediments and sea-level, and Earth science in society (e.g. hazards, climate change, strategic science). You will be supported in the development of practical and investigative skills in addition to collecting and interpreting your own Earth science data for a project. There will also be the opportunity to engage in scientific discovery and debate directly with the academics.

What you will study

This module will use an appealing set of societally and internationally relevant earth science topics to teach and assess fundamental OU level 3 science graduate skills and prepare you for science graduate employment.

You can expect this module to provide you with a supportive learning environment in which to develop your scientific skills and Earth science interests. The module is supported throughout by a team of tutors and the authors who all work together to ensure that you get rapid feedback and the best possible experience.

The module is divided into the following six equal parts:

Events in Earth history
This part comprises a series of study topics each of which is about eight hours long. These topics explore either an interesting event in Earth history or introduce techniques for measuring geological time. The topics include: the geological evidence for ‘Noah’s flood’, radiometric dating, global warming, geological time, the diversification of animals during the Cambrian, mineral deposits and the debate on the cause of the death of the dinosaurs.

We will teach you how science is communicated to the media and give you the opportunity to practice this skill using topics that particularly interest you. This part of the module also includes an introduction to the short independent project that you will undertake in weeks 26-28 so that you can start to plan ahead.

Mountains fashion the most spectacular regions of our planet, harbour the evidence of colliding continents, drive climate change, and provide a unique environment for cultural and linguistic diversity. The material examines the forces that cause mountain building and explores the consequences of large mountain belts such as the Himalayas for regional climate change, and the prediction of hazards including earthquakes, landslides, flooding and glacial outbursts. We will teach you how to read and analyse primary scientific literature, including scientific papers as well as giving you practice in using the Open Science Laboratory virtual microscope and digital kit.

The oceans represent vital and highly sensitive components of the Earth system. As organisms die, they sink to the seafloor, thereby continually contributing a major component to seafloor sediments; this forms our most important archive of the variability of Earth’s climate, its drivers and its consequences. Modern ocean processes, such as biogeochemical cycles, the carbon cycle, the biological pump and ocean circulation are explored in the context of Earth history. This part will help you develop skills in analysing data and uses real data sets recently collected from international scientific expeditions across Earth’s oceans.

Volcanoes and remote observation
Volcanoes play a significant role in fashioning the composition of Earth’s atmosphere and can profoundly affect local, regional and even global environment and climate. This material considers mantle plumes and their role in plate tectonics. You will also examine evidence for massive, prolonged volcanic events that have generated large igneous provinces on Earth, the Moon and Mercury. Deductions that can be made from observations at a range of different spatial scales are a special focus in this part of the module. In particular, remote observation techniques are used to examine large-scale features and the relationship between them.

Sediments and sea-level
The sedimentary record provides us with the most complete record of Earth surface processes. It is from this record that we gain information about the carbon cycle, climate change and the history of life. Sedimentary deposits also provide us with water and soil to produce food and other resources. Sea-level change is the most important process controlling the nature of the sedimentary record both on land and in the sea. ‘Sequence stratigraphy’, an analytical technique that is used throughout industry and academia, is taught and applied. The materials will help you learn how to predict where and when different sediments are deposited, as well as how to use and integrate different types of sedimentary data.

Science and society
In the first part of Science and society you will have about 50 hours to complete your short independent project. The project can be on a topic of your choosing allowing you to explore something of interest and which suits your unique skills. Your project can be based on fieldwork, analysis of primary scientific data at your desk, or research in another suitable place such as a museum, workplace or urban area. The project will give you an opportunity to develop scientific research skills that will be useful for a project-based module and the workplace. The final part provides you with study materials on some short topics of particular relevance to society including: climate change, how science is funded and natural hazards.

This module uses a commentary to guide you in your study of selected extracts from textbooks including some used in other modules (e.g. S369, S339, S269, S330), scientific papers, video, animations and multimedia. The commentary includes academic concepts together with questions to allow you to test and reflect on your learning.

You will learn

This module covers Earth science knowledge, theories, concepts and terminology. The module examines how interpretations are made based on a wide variety of observations and datasets and the uncertainties associated with these together with the relevance of Earth science to society. You will learn how to: apply knowledge and understanding, construct and test hypotheses, carry out and report on investigations, access and critically assess sources of information, together with the collection, application and communication of Earth science information in the form of text and graphics. This module will also cover effective time management, collaboration and practical Earth science techniques.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject.

While this module has no formal entry requirements, it builds directly on Earth science (S209) (or the discontinued predecessor modules S260 or S276). Before starting this module, we therefore recommend that you have studied S209, S260 or S276 (or have equivalent Earth science knowledge/skills) and that you have studied another OU level 2 science module.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. We have produced further guidance Are You Ready For S309? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation.

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

What's included

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

  • a study calendar and a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials and activities
  • audio and video content
  • assessment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • access to module-wide and tutor group forums.

Where possible, the materials will also be available in Microsoft Word and as PDFs. However, some materials and activities will be unsuitable for these formats.

You will need

You are likely to 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

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 (11 'Big Sur' 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 to help you to improve your skills.
  • 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. In all cases, we will record tutorials and make these 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 S309 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

Earth processes (S309) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2023.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2024.

Course work includes:

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