Environmental science challenges

We face many environmental science challenges ranging from climate change and ecosystem impacts to re-using resources and pollution. Many of these challenges present seemingly unsolvable wicked problems. This module will show you how to view issues from different perspectives and provide you with skills to help address these challenges. You’ll choose five topics to study, including the option to learn about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or gain credit for external courses, work experience, citizen science or a self-directed project. There will also be an engaging group project. The skills covered are directly relevant to employability, voluntary work and good citizenship.

Vocational relevance

This module focuses on employability and self-development skills to enable you to work more effectively both independently and as part of a team.


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 postgraduate modules correspond to these frameworks.
OU Postgraduate
Study method
Distance learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements

Find out more about entry requirements.

What you will study

In the first part of the module, you’ll choose five of the following options depending on where you need to develop skills and your interests.

Climate change
This topic explores the wicked problem of anthropogenic climate change, focusing on the ambitions of the 2015 Paris Agreement. It will guide you through analysis of Earth system modelling outputs, development of climate policy scenarios to achieve net zero, and the evaluation of climate change impacts, including impacts on energy demands, ecosystem tipping points and food crop yields. There’s an opportunity to perform an impact case study on a region and crop of your choosing, using an interactive tool that generates regional climate change projections from IPCC model outputs. Climate change policy has long been regarded as a prisoner’s dilemma, where it is in nobody’s interest to act first. The final section introduces some of the latest ideas challenging those beliefs and providing some grounds for optimism.

As biodiversity continues to decline globally, the conservation of nature, both for its intrinsic value and the services it provides humanity, has become critical. This topic addresses conservation by exploring how the past fossil record can inform current and future conservation efforts. It examines the current biodiversity crisis and conservation efforts to address it and investigates the future threats to biodiversity and possible pathways to their protection. Through critical reading, you’ll identify emerging biodiversity threats, evaluate their importance and offer potential solutions.

External opportunities and self-directed
Independent and external opportunities allow you to tailor your learning experience to professional development requirements, your interests or gain valuable vocational practice. Choices include setting up a small field or database project, attending a recognised course given by an external provider (a separate fee will apply), participating in a citizen science project, or completing work experience. We’ll provide guidance on possible choices and how to make the time available. Depending on the activity you choose, the topic will allow demonstration and development of technical competencies and a range of personal skills, including initiative, creativity and curiosity.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) permeate society at all levels, from sophisticated exploration of planetary surfaces to mundane chores like finding a hotel. Setting satellite imagery and other data into their spatial context, GIS includes many key tools for defining, exploring and resolving environmental issues. In this topic, you’ll learn the basic anatomy and essential functions of GIS. Additionally, you’ll gain experience of how GIS software works by completing hands-on activities via a web browser – creating maps, adding data and posing environmental questions. Finally, there’s an opportunity to practice your new skills by using GIS analysis to solve real-world environmental problems.

Impact of volcanoes
Volcanoes are the most spectacular manifestation of the dynamic nature of planet Earth. They impact every aspect of life on Earth, bringing the elements that comprise the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and lithosphere to the surface. This topic investigates how the chemistry of erupted rocks depend on internal Earth processes, how they influence the nature of eruptions and the hazards to life and the environment locally and even globally. It investigates how rock composition is measured in a digital lab and considers how public education can reduce volcanic hazard through effective leadership and communication. Through a digital laboratory, you’ll measure volcanic rock composition and better understand Earth processes. You’ll also consider the peer-review process experts use for research papers and technical reporting before publication.

Anthropogenic pollution of the air we breathe poses a significant risk to human health and ecosystem function. This topic introduces a range of pollutants from a variety of sources and the techniques used to monitor them. Using real data, we’ll prepare a technical report on pollution events that utilises appropriate quantitative techniques and evaluate the results in terms of potential health and environmental impacts. Critical evaluation of real reports on pollution incidences is also covered.

The circular economy
As the problems of dealing with waste and using resources sustainably become of increasing concern, we need new ways of thinking beyond the traditional linear model of make, use and dispose. This topic considers the circular economy, which is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Through critical reading and case studies, it explores how we can build a circular economy that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.

In addition to your five options, in the later part of the module, there’s the chance to participate in a collaborative project and refine your independent work. In the collaborative project, working in a team with fellow students, you’ll use your skills to suggest a solution to an environmental problem. You’ll learn to collaborate effectively, supported by a tutor. There’s also the opportunity to refine parts of your earlier assessment based on tutor feedback before submitting the revised work for the end-of-module assessment. This process of improving your work gives you a more authentic experience of preparing technical reports and proposals.

You will learn

This module focuses on developing personal, professional, and employability skills: particularly effective communication to a range of audiences, problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. You’ll learn how to apply knowledge and understanding to evaluate and address environmental challenges. This involves furthering your skills in finding and utilising different lines of evidence and appreciating the limits of current knowledge. The team project allows you to develop collaborative skills in a supportive environment. Notably, the module enables you to plan and organise your learning and develop independence and self-awareness.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You’ll have a team of tutors to support you, each of whom has a range of specialist skills. They will work together to ensure that you have the best support for the diversity of topics. You’ll also have a named tutor to help you with specific queries, plus mark and comment on your written work. You’ll be able to ask for advice via the online discussion forum, by telephone and by email. We’ll offer at least five tutorials that we strongly encourage you to participate in. During the collaborative project, a group tutor will support your team.


The assessment details can be found in the facts box.

Course work includes

2 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

Future availability

Environmental science challenges (S831) starts once a year – in September/October.

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

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2030.


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.

Entry requirements

S831 is a masters-level module; therefore, you need good knowledge of and well-developed skills in environmental science or environmental management obtained through OU levels 1–3 study or another higher education institution. We may ask for evidence of this.

You should also be prepared to develop your independent learning and collaboration skills.

We strongly recommend you check your background and experience are sufficient to tackle this module. We’ve found that appropriately prepared students have the best chance of completing their studies and get the most enjoyment from the module.

Are you ready for S831?

Preparatory work

Once registered, you’ll have access to the S831 preparation website. You’ll find important information on external courses and experiences that you may wish to take advantage of over the summer when many environmental courses, surveys, and fieldwork happen (in the northern hemisphere).


Start End England fee Register
28 Sep 2024 Jun 2025 £1750.00

Registration closes 05/09/24 (places subject to availability)

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2030.

Future availability

Environmental science challenges (S831) starts once a year – in September/October.

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

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2030.

Additional costs

Study costs

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

Ways to pay for this module

We know there’s a lot to think about when choosing to study, not least how much it’s going to cost and how you can pay.

That’s why we keep our fees as low as possible and offer a range of flexible payment and funding options, including a postgraduate loan, if you study this module as part of an eligible qualification. To find out more, see Fees and funding.

Study materials

What's included

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

  • course-specific module materials and activities
  • audio and video content
  • assessment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • module discussion area.

Where possible, we’ll also provide the materials in Microsoft Word and PDF format. However, some materials and activities will be unsuitable for these formats.

You will need

  • a scanner, or
  • a digital camera (a good-quality phone camera will suffice).

You’ll draw diagrams or annotate printed diagrams; you’ll scan or photograph these for inclusion in forum or wiki posts or 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 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.

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio components and Word accessible and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader (and where applicable: mathematical and scientific notation may be particularly difficult to read in this way). Other alternative formats of the module materials may be available in the future.

To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our disability support pages.

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