The students at one were specialising in chemistry and most would be close to completing their degrees.
The others were taking a more general residential school course called Practising Science (SXR103) and most would have started their Open University studies fairly recently. Practising science has a larger ‘parent’ course, Discovering Science S103, which provides the foundations upon which the rest of the Open University’s more specialist, higher level science courses (in biology, chemistry, Earth sciences, etc.) are built. Most Practising Science students have either just completed Discovering Science or are studying the two courses simultaneously.
So, what’s it like to take Practising Science?
Well, for a start, the course starts some weeks before you go to Summer School. You receive a package of materials that contains a 120-page book called the Practising Science study book, which you are expected to work through before your residential school week. Also included are various other documents, including workbooks related to each of the main activities that you will be engaged in during the week. You are not expected to read these from cover to cover beforehand, but at least you have the opportunity to familiarise yourself with what you will be doing in the laboratories and on the field trip.
Most people arrive at their residential school site on the Saturday afternoon, register, settle into their study bedroom and then make their way to a lecture theatre. There they find themselves among about 160 fellow students and a smaller number of dubious looking characters who in due course turn out to be tutors.
After listening to some introductory remarks from people claiming to be the School Director, the Course Director and so on, students are divided into smaller so-called Tutor Groups (imaginatively called ‘blue spots’, ‘red rectangles’, etc.). Each Tutor Group is then guided to what will be its ‘home base’ for the rest of the week by its very own Group Tutor. More than likely, the Group Tutor will arrange for people to introduce themselves at this stage since for the rest of the week each group of 15-20 students will be working quite closely with one another and with their Group Tutor.
Between 9 am and 5.30 pm on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, each Tutor Group will be busily engaged in one of four Activities - three are laboratory-based, while a fourth is a field trip. The order in which you do these activities depends on the Group you’re in. Since Group Tutors work with ‘their’ students on these Activities throughout the week, they get to know one another fairly well. However, small teams of Activity Tutors are responsible for running the various Activities on a daily basis. Although the Workbooks contain detailed instructions – as well as places to record observations and data – the Activity Tutors carefully talk people through what they have to do and make sure that nobody is left confused.
Tuesday is somewhat different, in that everybody is engaged in a co-operative research project on the impact of aluminium, in which small teams gather information using the internet and other resources and work it up into a poster which is presented on Friday morning (considered by many to be the highlight of the week).
Although there is some free time in the evenings, there are a few compulsory sessions and a wide choice of optional tutorials on a whole range of topics.
Copies of the end-of-course assessment (or ECA) for that particular week are issued to students on Friday morning. The ECA consists of a number of questions based on the work you will have been doing during the week and these can be answered fairly easily provided that you have kept proper records for each Activity in your Workbooks. The ECA has to be sent to the University by a specified date in early September and – all being well – you are notified of successful completion of the summer school a short while later. The residential part of Practising science comes to an end at lunchtime on Friday.
Most people find their week at summer school extremely exhilarating – but also pretty tiring. You are provided with three square meals a day and don’t have to worry about washing up, cleaning, etc. However, you are constantly exposed to new ideas and scientific techniques. Friendships made at summer school often last right through students’ Open University careers, as people meet up again at subsequent residential schools and also keep in touch using the Open University’s own computer conferencing system.
Over the years, the Activities have been carefully honed to provide a suitable experience of laboratory or field-work for students who may not have done any practical science since they left school. However, it is recognised that people vary and the pace of work can be adjusted to suit individuals. In particular, the Open University is very keen to facilitate the participation of students who may have limited mobility or visual or hearing impairments. Such students are encouraged to discuss any additional assistance they may require – in the form of helpers and/or specialist equipment – long before the residential school week itself so that suitable arrangements can be put in place.
Finally, what if you can’t possibly get away to a residential school week – because of your responsibilities as a carer, for example? If you want to get a specialist named degree in science, then it is essential to complete a small number of residential school courses at different levels. However, although it is usually better to take a residential school course at about the same time you take its ‘parent’ course, you could take the residential school courses later when it’s more convenient for you to do so.
In any case, there is always the option of accepting a BSc(Hons)(Open) degree that includes all the science courses that interest you, but which doesn’t require you to include any residential school courses.