Your feedback is important to us
Please take two minutes at the end of your visit to help us improve our information and services.
Skip to content The Open University
    An undergraduate course in Science.

Science in context

On this page

This course covers a range of interesting, contemporary issues with a scientific dimension: BSE/vCJD; near-Earth objects; water and wellbeing; climate change; genetic manipulation and nanotechnology. It deals with the underlying science and its ‘real world’ relevance. The topics are analysed in terms of four themes: communication; risk; ethical issues; and decision-making. The course will equip you to examine critically similar issues that might arise in future. You are assumed to have studied a range of scientific disciplines at Level 1 and to have an interest in science in its broad social context.

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.

Register for the course


Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£440.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£985.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£440.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£985.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£440.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£1316.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£440.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£865.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£1316.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£1316.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£440.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.
Start End Fee Register
04 Oct 2014 Jun 2015
£1316.00
Choose country above

Registration opens on 24/04/14

See below for information about part time tuition fee loans available for study towards a qualification.

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2015.

*Fees may vary by country.

What you will study

Six interesting, contemporary scientific topics provide the foundations for this course. In addition, four important themes – science communication, risk, ethical issues and decision making – set the topics in a broader societal context. Overall, science content takes up 75-80%, and the themes 20-25%, of study time.

BSE/vCJD (three weeks). BSE was not only an economic and social tragedy in its own right; it also gave rise to vCJD, an invariably fatal new disease that (so far) has affected mainly young people. Our quest to understand these and other encephalopathy diseases is giving rise to a new branch of biology that deals with shape-changing protein molecules such as prions. At least in the UK and much of Europe, the BSE/vCJD episode seems to have contributed to the public’s apparent mistrust of many new scientific developments, and scepticism about reassurances that these are both beneficial and safe.

Near-Earth Objects and the impact hazard (three weeks). This topic deals with the collision of asteroids and comets with the Earth. In the past, such collisions are known to have had major effects on the development of life on Earth. This topic explores the nature of the hazard and how it is quantified. The high probability that, sooner or later, more collisions will happen in future raises all sorts of difficult issues. Should we attempt to prevent such an impact? Or at least mitigate its effects? If so, how? How much resource ought to be devoted to such an enterprise (resource that could be spent on controlling diseases or ending world hunger)? If a major impact were to be predicted with a high level of probability, should the public be informed? What would be the likely effects of such knowledge?

Water & Well-being: arsenic in Bangladesh (three weeks). The belated realisation that water made available to villages in rural Bangladesh and India was naturally contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic raises difficult questions about the responsibilities of science and scientists. What can and should be done once such a problem has been recognised?

Climate Change (seven weeks). Many people are convinced that human-induced climate change is the single greatest threat to human society at the present time. Predicted effects include increased sea level, more extreme-weather events, alterations to the distribution of natural biota – including disease-causing organisms – and changes in agricultural productivity. Although there can be little doubt that the climate is changing at the present time, the problem is that climate is an intrinsically variable phenomenon. There are therefore those who do not accept that we are witnessing anything other than natural oscillations caused by (for instance) variation in the Sun’s energy output, and so resist the profound changes to our way of life that would be needed to stop human-induced climate change. In addition to covering the science that underpins climate and its variation, this topic addresses some of the issues that arise when science impinges on the ‘real’ world of politics and economics.

Genetic Manipulation (seven weeks). After millennia of intentionally and accidentally altering the genetic composition of animals and plants by selective breeding, we stand on the brink of being able to introduce any gene from any organism into any other organism – including ourselves. Advocates point to the tremendous potential that such genetic manipulation has for improving agricultural crops and animals, and for curing human diseases. Others question the safety of genetically modified food, the possible ecological consequences of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, and the ethics of tampering with the human genome. As well as the science behind such examples of genetic manipulation, this topic also examines recent attempts at public consultation.

Nanotechnology (five weeks). The extremely diverse and rapidly developing field of nanotechnology is emerging as a ‘battlefield’. Lines are drawn between those keen to harness the potential of new materials and techniques, and those concerned about the possible dangers of introducing new science-based technologies on a very wide scale over a comparatively short period of time. This topic covers the underlying science of some aspects of nanotechnology, introduces some likely applications, including those categorised as bio-nanotechnology, and critically discusses these developments in terms of the four course themes.

While each of these scientific topics is interesting and important in its own right, they have also been selected for the light they throw on the four course themes. The course themes are:

  • science communication
  • risk
  • ethical issues
  • decision making.

These themes are introduced in the Introduction to the course (which precedes the first topic, BSE/vCJD), developed through the succeeding topics and assessed in the three tutor-marked assignments and the end-of-module assessment alongside the course’s science content. Effective two-way communication about science and science-related issues between scientists, decision-makers and the public is crucial if society is not only to reap the benefits of science, but also to minimise the chance of repeating some of the mistakes of the past. Since all change entails a degree of risk, it is essential to assess the risks – as well as potential benefits – of proposed scientific developments. Given the pace and likely impact on society of many such developments, we must also think clearly about the ethical dimension of these developments. Finally, scientific developments do not occur without decision making occurring at various levels. While not a course in social science, this course examines critically the mutual interaction between ‘pure’ science and its broader social context.

Since the course deals with issues that do not have clear-cut ‘black-and-white’ answers, it is very important that students engage in debate with other students (and their tutor). While such discussions will naturally occur in face-to-face tutorials, you are expected to participate in one or more computer conferences – putting forward and defending your own views on an issue and giving serious consideration to the views put forward by others.

You will learn

Not only some interesting science and its relevance in modern society, but also how to critically analyse contemporary scientific issues in terms of the course themes of communication, risk, ethical issues and decision making.

Entry

This course is for you if you have already studied a fairly broad range of science disciplines (that is, not only biology or the physical sciences) at Level 1 – either with The Open University (Exploring science (S104)) or elsewhere – and have an interest in the impact of science in a wider societal context. If you have not studied science at this level or have studied only (say) biology or physics, you may need to read outside the course in order to understand the underlying science adequately. Are you ready for S250? provides more detailed guidance. This can be viewed as an interactive program for PC or printed as a PDF from the Are you ready for science? website. 

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

Regulations

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

The study materials are available on audio in DAISY Digital Talking Book format. The books are available in a comb-bound format. The study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. The course contains complex figures and assessment is sometimes based on these. Figure descriptions are provided wherever possible. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

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
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

What's included

Course books, other printed materials, a DVD-ROM that includes video material and computer software, a website, online forums.

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 be assigned to a tutor who will hold online tutorials, facilitate one or more online forums, mark your tutor-marked assignments and generally help you achieve the course’s learning outcomes.

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

Assessment

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

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

You must submit your end-of-module assessment (EMA) via the eTMA system.

The TMAs are delivered via the course website and each TMA will be published around the time that you are studying the topic being assessed, i.e. the TMAs will not be available at the start of the course.

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that starts in October 2014. We expect it to be available once a year. 

How to register

To register a place on this course return to the top of the page and use the Click to register button.

Student Reviews

“If students are interested in sciences this course needs serious consideration. I fail to see how anyone would not find ...”
Read more
“Thus far this course is the most interesting and enjoyable couse I have undertaken. It has a number of interesting ...”
Read more

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 S250
Credits 30
OU Level 2
SCQF level 8
FHEQ level 5
Course work includes:
3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Your questions

Try our frequently asked questions.

Come and meet us at an event near you.

Or contact an adviser by Email or call +44(0) 845 300 60 90 +44(0) 845 366 60 35

Employers' questions

Contact Corporate Enquiries
Visit our website for employers or Email us

Get a prospectus

Download or
order