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    An undergraduate course.

Practical environmental science

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Practical environmental science explores the natural world through activities ranging from the use of satellite data for mapping land cover change to exploring the hydrology of a limestone pavement. The activities include two compulsory residential field trips and two online activities carried out in your home. The course ends with an exciting team project, where you will work with students from other courses in this Practical science series. Although there’s a choice of residential school dates, we can’t always offer your first choice. The cost of accommodation and travel is not included in the course fee.

Modules at Level 2 assume that you are suitably prepared for study at this level. If you want to take a single module to satisfy your career development needs or pursue particular interests, you don’t need to start at Level 1 but you do need to have adequately prepared yourself for OU study in some other way. Check with our Student Registration & Enquiry Service to make sure that you are sufficiently prepared.

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This course is expected to start for the last time in February 2014.

What you will study

Scientific enquiry, whether in the field or in the laboratory, proceeds through objective observation and experimentation: the questions ’why?’ and ’how?’ are explored through interactions and tests inspired by ’what if ....?’. Skilled practical scientists reveal underlying relationships by devising questions that can be addressed safely; they report effectively and critically evaluate their findings. By studying this course you will develop these skills that are essential for practical work.

In this course you will participate in two compulsory residential field trips and carry out two online activities at home. 

You will start your study with the Water quality monitoring activity followed by one of the residential school field trips. Your third activity will be Remote observation followed by the second of the residential school field trips. You will have an opportunity to choose / book the dates for your residential school attendance, in January 2014, and this will decide the order you study the residential school field trips.

Online activities

Water quality monitoring – At the start of this online activity you will carry out a water survey at a local pond or river, based on a subjective assessment and an analysis of the aquatic invertebrates present. You will then complete a series of online investigations and interactive screen experiments to:

  • measure the total hardness of water samples by performing titrations
  • determine the nitrate levels in samples of river water in which you prepare a calibration curve using a spectrophotometric method
  • work out which pesticides are present in a given water sample using a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry system
  • look at the microbiological safety of drinking water using a variety of standard methods.

You’ll also collect data over a week-long period, via a webcam, to determine the biological oxygen demand and the rate constant for the uptake of oxygen used in the breakdown of organic material by microorganisms present in water. This topic is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of environmental science, chemistry and biology.

Remote observation – What can we discover about our planet – and others – using remote sensors? This online activity will guide you through the manipulation and interpretation of large-scale observational data on oceans, atmosphere and planetary surfaces, mainly using geographic information system (GIS) techniques. You will use an open-source GIS software package, guided by instructions produced specifically for this activity. The study materials include projects focused on ocean colour, Martian landforms, atmospheric spectra, and land cover change. This activity is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of geology, environmental science, physics, chemistry and biology.

Residential school field trips

Hydrology and meteorology in the field – This compulsory three-day residential school concentrates on how to collect and interpret hydrological and meteorological data in the field. In the beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park in the UK, you will carry out three days of fieldwork around Malham Tarn. The accommodation and laboratory work will be based at a field centre in a converted Georgian country house. You will study a local catchment; investigate the flow of water in rivers and through soils; and analyse the water quality. You will collect meteorological data; examine cloud formations; measure the temperature of clouds and the lower atmosphere; and investigate relationships between weather and hydrology. Online study materials will introduce the field techniques that you will be using. See the Residential school section below for more details.

Vegetation and soils in the field – This compulsory three-day residential school will teach you how to describe and interpret vegetation and soils in the field. You will carry out three days of fieldwork in the heart of the Shropshire countryside near to the town of Shrewsbury, UK. The accommodation and laboratory work will be at a field centre set in 12 hectares of grassland and woodland. You will learn to identify plant species; map plant communities; investigate the properties of soils; and study the interactions between soils and vegetation in the upland environment of the Shropshire Hills. You will also learn to use GPS technology to assist your mapping work. Online study materials will introduce the field techniques that you will be using. See the Residential school section below for more details.

Method of study

During the course you will be required to use your own personal computer to access experiments and data, and to analyse and report results for the non-residential activities. You should be prepared to set aside several periods of up to half a day for completing some of the tasks. Therefore, to study this course successfully, you must be able to study regularly (for 8-10 hours per week) and have broadband access to the internet (for up to 4 hours per week) throughout the duration of the course.

Some tasks within the course will require scheduled interactions either with equipment or with your tutor group. Therefore this course may not be suitable for you if you are often unavailable for study for more than a week at a time. The end-of-module assessment (team project) will require working online in a group during the month of September, and if you are unavailable for study, or do not have regular access to a broadband internet connection, for more than a week during this time you may not be able to complete the course satisfactorily.

Team project

At the end of the course you will join a multidisciplinary team to complete a short project on contemporary practical science. You’ll work collaboratively with students from other courses in this Practical science series, using a variety of communication methods, including scheduled online forums.  Experience of this kind of professional teamwork is highly regarded by many employers.

Other practical science courses in this series

You must study one of the courses in this series as the practical element of our BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences and Diploma of Higher Education in Natural Sciences. This course Practical environmental science (SXE288) is a compulsory module in our BSc (Hons) Environmental Science.

You will learn

The practical skills developed in this course include:

  • planning and conducting observations and experiments
  • data handling
  • data presentation
  • report writing
  • safe working
  • professional team-working.

You will catalogue evidence of your achievement of these in a Skills Portfolio that forms part of the assessment.

Residential school

To pass this course you must participate in two field-based residential schools – Hydrology and meteorology in the field and Vegetation and soils in the field. Both are run by the Field Studies Council on behalf of The Open University. The three-day programmes will include both outdoor exercises and follow-up laboratory work.

Hydrology and meteorology in the field is based at Malham Tarn Field Centre in Yorkshire and will be offered on ten dates, some at the end of April and in early May, and some in late July and early August. (Mid-week and long weekend options will be offered).

Vegetation and soils in the field is based at Preston Montford Field Centre in Shropshire and will be offered on ten dates, some at the end of April and beginning of May, and some in mid to late July. (Mid-week and long weekend options will be offered.)

The costs of the residential school accommodation, and your travel to the venues, are not included in the course fee, even if you are eligible for financial support or funding your study with a Tuition Fee Loan. Full-board accommodation in shared (normally twin) rooms is available at the venues for each of the two resident schools, if booked in advance directly through the Field Studies Council. It may be possible to pay an en-suite supplement or a single-room supplement if you would prefer not to share a room with another student. We recommend that you stay on site if possible.

You will be contacted near the start of the course in January 2014 to make your choice of school dates for both residential schools. If you do not make a choice at this point, we will allocate you to residential school dates that have remaining places.

Note that there is no alternative learning experience so you must make sure that you will be available to attend both the residential schools. You are therefore advised to respond promptly to maximise your chances of getting your preferred choice of date.

More information is available from our residential schools website.


This is a Level 2 course and you need to have a good knowledge of the subject area, obtained either through study with the OU, or by doing equivalent work at another university.

To complete this course successfully you do need some basic mathematical skills and experience of practical observations and measurements in a scientific context. An appropriate level of mathematical and scientific knowledge can be obtained by studying Exploring science (S104) and either Investigative and mathematical skills in science (S141) or Scientific investigations (S155) plus appropriate Level 2 courses.

You should have completed at least 60 credits of Level 2 study in the environment sciences before starting this course. We recommend that you study SXE288 as the final Level 2 module of your degree.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the course, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

Outside the UK

This course is open to students based outside the UK.

Preparatory work

The early part (Blocks 1-4) of Environmental science (S216) is ideal preparation.
Please note that February 2014 will be the final start date for S216.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

Study material will be delivered entirely online and will include printable versions of web pages for students to use should they wish. Some Adobe PDF components may not be fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical and scientific materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Students with hearing impairments may have difficulty participating in the audio conferences but should be able to participate fully in online forum discussions. Written transcripts of audio- and audio-visual clips will be included in the study materials. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

Some aspects of this course are not fully accessible to all visually impaired students and studying them will require extra time and possibly use of a sighted helper. Students with manual dexterity problems may need assistance to complete some experiments. 

As the course is primarily web-based, you will need to make extensive use of a computer and the internet. If you use mobile technology, or specialist hardware or software to assist you in operating a computer or with the types of material outlined above you are advised to talk to the Student Registration & Enquiry Service about the support available to meet your needs.

At the residential schools you will be required to make and record observations in the field and to reinforce this with work in the laboratory. The days usually stretch from 09:00 to 21:00 with breaks for packed lunch and dinner.

Good manual dexterity and visual acuity are required. If your sight is severely impaired you are likely to require an assistant for the practical work as much of the work is centred on individual observations. Even with an assistant, it is unlikely that you will be able to participate fully in the fieldwork or to achieve the learning objectives.

The fieldwork means traversing a variety of terrains (often rough) and is likely to be extremely challenging or unsafe if your mobility is significantly restricted, or if you have a severe medical condition. You will be in the field for six full days (over the two schools) in all weathers, and you may need to walk several kilometres during the day. In general, if you’re able to make your way, with or without assistance, over dirt paths or, for distances of at least a few hundred metres, over grassland (sometimes up or down hill) or in woodlands, you should be able to participate in most of the programme. If your mobility is severely restricted, or if you are a wheelchair user, we request that you bring an assistant with you to the residential schools. If you’re likely to require medical attention or frequent toilet facilities during the fieldwork, this course may be restrictive for you. 

You may find it tiring to be outdoors for long spells. You can take rest breaks if you want to, by arrangement.

There will be some coach trips to field sites using centre transport, although some fieldwork will be conducted within walking distance of the field centre. It may be possible to arrange transport to get you to sites to which the physically active will walk.

Since the course assessment tests knowledge and skills gained from the fieldwork activities, they are compulsory and so you will not be able to pass the course without attendance at the residential activities. The venues will make every effort to accommodate additional requirements if they have sufficient notice but please note that it might not always be possible to fully meet your needs. It is therefore essential that you read the venue information on the residential school website, and make contact with the residential venues before selecting this module.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Visit our Services for disabled students website for more information, including:

  • help to determine your study requirements and how to request the support that you need  
  • Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)
  • using a computer for OU study
  • equipment and other support services that we offer
  • examination arrangements
  • residential school arrangements, including the support and equipment available
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

What's included

The study and assessment materials will be delivered online, with the exception of a DVD-ROM.

The costs of the accommodation packages for the two residential activities are not included in the course fee. You will pay these directly to the venues you are attending. You will also be responsible for your own travel arrangements. See the Residential schools section above for details.

You will need

Broadband internet access is required for the non-residential activities and a digital camera is also highly desirable to record images of your work.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this course. It includes online activities – you can access using a web browser – and some course software provided on disk.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer running Windows since 2007 you should have no problems completing the computer-based activities.
  • A netbook, tablet or other mobile computing device is not suitable for this course – check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you have an Apple Mac or Linux computer – please note that you can only use it for this course by running Windows on it using Boot Camp or a similar dual-boot system.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information including the details of the support we provide.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with your general progress, and who you can ask for academic advice and guidance. In addition, each practical activity will be supported by specialist tutors.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this course can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs).

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that starts in February 2014 when it will be available for the last time.

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Student Reviews

“A very interesting and engaging course. The two field studies modules were superb. The tutors were, without exception, encouraging and ...”
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“Please note that this review uses the term 'module' to describe one of the four practical science topics that comprise ...”
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Distance learning

The Open University is the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you’re at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you’ll be supported throughout your studies – your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information read Distance learning explained.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.
Course facts
About this course:
Course code SXE288
Credits 30
OU Level 2
SCQF level 9
FHEQ level 5
Course work includes:
5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
4 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
End-of-module assessment
Includes residential school

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