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    An undergraduate course.

Our dynamic planet: Earth and life

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The Earth appears constant and unchanging from a human perspective. Yet over the span of geological time, measured in billions of years, it is a dynamic system in which continents move slowly across its surface; mountain belts rise and fall; ocean basins are created and destroyed; the evolution of life itself occurs and all in concert to the pulse of the Earth’s internal energy: heat. But how did all this start? What are the Earth's origins and how does life form part of its pattern? This course tackles these fascinating questions and equips you with the intellectual tools to examine the evidence that is all around us.

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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No current presentation - see Future availability

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2013.

What you will study

How did the Earth form and evolve into its present state? And how does life fit into this dynamic system? This course explores the structure of the Earth from core to atmosphere, and investigates how the Earth system works from a geological perspective. You will study how the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere all interact to produce the world we live in today.

The course is organised in two halves, based around two books. The first book, An Introduction to Our Dynamic Planet, investigates the solid Earth (or geosphere); its place in the Solar System; and the processes that have both shaped it in the past and continue to shape it today. After opening chapters on the structure and formation of the Earth and that mysterious time before the geological record, the Hadean, the book focuses on plate tectonics. There are separate chapters on processes at constructive and destructive margins and continental collision zones. These are all regions where the geosphere interacts with the oceans and atmosphere and where the geosphere is currently active. You’ll then look at the deep Earth and how that continues to affect the surface environment, with a final summary of the critical factors that make the Earth operate in the way it does today. All through this course, you’re continually reminded of the ways in which the geosphere interacts with (and reacts to) the atmosphere and hydrosphere.

The second half of the course is based on the book An Introduction to the Earth-Life System and examines the interactions and feedbacks between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere. You will explore how the Earth’s surface environment is a complex interplay between these components. You will also be looking at the variable timescales over which these interactions take place: from the Wilson Cycle – dictated by plate motions operating over hundreds of millions of years – through ice ages of a few million years duration, to the effects of ocean and atmospheric circulation over periods of years, decades and centuries. You will investigate the astronomical controls of climate change; how they are recorded in sedimentary rocks; and the interaction between mountain building, erosion and climate change. You’ll also examine life itself: is it passive, or a force for change driving the environment towards further evolutionary development?

Throughout the course, your studies will be directed via a website. There will be additional activities, some based around your computer while others involve reading and analysis of sources in the published scientific literature.


This is a Level 2 course and you need to have a good knowledge of the subject area, obtained either through Level 1 study with the OU, or by doing equivalent work at another university. Exploring science (S104) and Maths for science (S151) would be ideal preparation.

You are also strongly advised to have already completed Geology (S276) and Planetary science and the search for life (S283) as both are essential preparation for this course.

We do not recommend that you start your Level 2 study with this course, as the content requires a familiarity with scientific language and concepts that are reasonably advanced. Although highly rewarding, it is a challenging course as it requires the ability to take a broad overview of an issue, drawing on evidence from a wide range of sources and science disciplines. It will also equip you with the skills and knowledge required to take on any of our current Level 3 Geosciences courses.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the course, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The Science Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For S279? to help you to decide. This can be viewed or printed 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.


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 will be available on DVD-ROM in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). The course contains many complex diagrams and the most important of these may be described within the PDF e-texts. Components may not be fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. The books are available in a comb-bound format. Written transcripts for the audio-visual material are included on the DVD-ROM. The course also involves drawing diagrams and plotting graphs which may be difficult for some students. You may be required to draw diagrams or to annotate by hand diagrams that you download, and then to use either a scanner or a digital camera to produce files of these diagrams for inclusion in your assessment. If you have severely impaired sight, you may need a sighted assistant to be able to make full use of the computer-based resources or complete some of the activities. 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, DVD-ROMs, website holding other essential study materials, e.g. activity instructions and assignments, which you may choose to print out.

You will need

A basic scientific calculator; a digital camera or scanner.

You may be required to draw diagrams or to annotate by hand diagrams that you download, and then to use either a scanner or a digital camera to produce files of these diagrams for inclusion in your assessment.

If you wish to participate in the optional online collaborative tutorials, you will need a headset, with a microphone and earphones to talk to your tutor and other students online.

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 the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance.You may also be offered online tutorials and optional online collaborative tutorials that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. 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 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.

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that starts in October 2013 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

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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 S279
Credits 30
OU Level 2
SCQF level 9
FHEQ level 5
Course work includes:
4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
4 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.

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