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Practising science: Reading the rocks and ecology

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Have you ever wondered how scientists analyse the environment? This free course, Practising science: Reading the rocks and ecology, introduces you to the techniques used by science students at residential schools. You will learn how to determine where rocks have come from and how they were made. You will also examine the processes involved in determining the ecology of a particular area.

By the end of this free course you should be able to:

  • explain the difference between a mineral and a rock;
  • describe the textural differences between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks;
  • account for these differences in terms of the processes that produce these rocks;
  • classify igneous rocks according to their grain size and mineralogical composition;
  • recognise the difference between a body fossil and a trace fossil;
  • sketch a rock exposure and identify faults, folds and joints;
  • suggest a sequence of geological events that can best explain the features observed in a rock exposure;
  • relate processes of the rock cycle to a plate tectonic setting;
  • describe the causes of sea-level changes and evidence for these changes;
  • understand how to use a hand lens;
  • define ecology;
  • explain some of the reasons why the study of ecology is important;
  • describe some of the ways in which soil pH influences the distribution of organisms;
  • describe some of the seaweeds and some animals zonation on rocky shores;
  • describe in general terms how transects, quadrats, point quadrants and time counts can be used objectively to collect quantitative data about field sites.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 14 hours
  • Updated Monday 17th March 2014
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Geology
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1 Earth Sciences: reading the rocks

1.1 About this unit

Science is all about knowledge, what we know about the material world and the Universe in which our world is just a microscopic speck. The aim of scientists is to extend the frontiers of this knowledge so that we can understand more about the physical Universe and the life within it.

Scientists acquire knowledge by engaging in four fundamentally important and connected tasks. The first is observation: they observe the natural world and the space beyond it, and both describe and record what they see. Second, they construct hypotheses to explain what they see. Third, they carry out experiments where possible to test their hypotheses. Finally they communicate their findings – to other scientists who will build on this work to extend knowledge still further, to technologists who will devise practical applications for scientific knowledge, and to the general public to raise awareness of scientific discovery. The way in which science is communicated to interested parties is especially important because scientific knowledge is useless if no one else can understand it.

This unit introduces some of the background needed for students taking part in the earth science and ecology activities which often take place at science residential schools. At such schools, students normally undertake laboratory and field based activities in earth science, biology, physics and chemistry.

In August 2006 Radio 4 Material World broadcast three programmes from Open University Residential Schools, including SXR103 Practising Science. To listen to the programme go to

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