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The Material World - Studying science

Updated Friday 28th July 2006

In 2006, The Material World recorded special episodes at Open University residential schools taking place at the universities of York, Sussex and Heriot-Watt (in Edinburgh) during July and August.

Students in the lab at summer school Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU

The majority of students at York would have been close to completing their Open University degrees, probably specialising in chemistry. However, the students at Sussex and Heriot-Watt were studying Practising Science (SXR103) and most would have started their Open University studies in science fairly recently.

If you are contemplating joining the Open University to study science, where would you start?

Most of the students studying Practising Science (a course that carries 10 of the 360 points you would need for a named degree in science), would have recently completed or were simultaneously studying it’s ‘parent’ course Discovering Science (S103) - worth 60 points. Discovering Science is a fairly major undertaking – involving a total of 600 hours of study either between October and July or between February and October. With the support of a tutor, you would be introduced to the major subject areas that make up science – biology, chemistry, Earth sciences, physics and astronomy, etc. – through a series of fascinating questions such as:

  • What happened when the Universe began?
  • Why are some parts of the Earth prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions?
  • How do living organisms evolve?

No particular knowledge of science is assumed before you start Discovering science – just a general interest in the subject and a desire to learn more. Naturally, it is assumed that you can read and write in English with confidence. However, only basic mathematical skills (e.g. addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of whole numbers) are assumed. There is considerable emphasis in the course on the development of study and other skills, such as writing clearly, becoming competent using slightly more advanced mathematical techniques and using information and communications technology (ICT) effectively.


If you are pretty sure that you have the knowledge and skills to start Discovering Science, but unsure that you want to take on such a large commitment straightaway, a whole range of Science Short Courses are available. These courses are at the same academic level, but involve only about 100 hours of study each (and carry 10 points towards a degree or other qualification) over two to five months. Although, unlike with most other Open University courses, you would not be assigned to a personal tutor, study advisers are available to be contacted by phone or via the internet about academic questions, matters related to assessment or how to study more effectively.

The Science Short Courses that are deemed particularly suitable if you are new to studying at a distance – because they explicitly develop study and writing skills – are Studying mammals (S182), Understanding human nutrition (SK183) and Human genetics and health issues (SK195). Courses that are regarded as appropriate entry courses if the subject matters appeals to you – but which don’t place much emphasis on skills development – include Life in the Oceans: exploring our blue planet (S180), Fossils and the History of Life (S193) and Introducing Astronomy (S194). A few Science Short Courses assume that you have already successfully studied other Open University science courses.

Finally, if you are returning to study after a long absence or know that you need to build up more slowly to university-level study, then there is the Openings Programme. Openings courses involve 6-8 hours study a week over periods of up to 20 weeks.

During this time, you are looked after by a personal tutor to whom you submit two short pieces of work. Successful completion of a third piece of work – called the end-of-course assessment (or ECA) – earns you 10 points that you can count towards an Open University qualification (such as a degree or diploma). The Openings courses that are particularly appropriate if you want to study science are Breakthrough to mathematics, science and technology (Y153) or, after Christmas 2006, the replacement course, Understanding environment (Y161).

Of course, it has been possible only to outline here some of the possible ways to become an Open University student – unashamedly putting the emphasis on science courses! For further information or advice, you should visit the Open University courses website or contact the Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

The Material World in more depth:


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