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Practical science: Earth and environment

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The activities in this practical science course offer a choice of topics about the Earth and environments. Some, such as the investigation of the quality of water resources, examination of meteorites and the use of satellite data to investigate the environmental geology of Cyprus can be done from the comfort of your own home. You can also opt to attend field trips at two residential venues in northern England – the cost of accommodation and travel is not included in the course fee. The course ends with an exciting team project, where you will work with students from other courses in this Practical science series.

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.

The course is delivered via a choice of online activities. For the second and fourth activities, we also offer residential options. However, places on these residential options are limited, and may not be suitable for all students. The residential options also carry additional charges – see the residential school section below for further details.

Practical activity 1

  • Discovering Cyprus: rocks, mud and water.

Practical activity 2 – you will have a choice from the following options (you will be contacted to make your choice close to the course start date):

  • Igneous and metamorphic rocks in the field (residential school – subject to available places)
  • Water quality monitoring (non-residential activity).

Practical activity 3

  • Remote observation.

Practical activity 4 – you will have a choice from the following options (you will be contacted to make your choice close to the course start date):

  • Sedimentary rocks and fossils in the field (residential school – subject to available places)
  • Formation and habitability of planets (non-residential activity).

Discovering Cyprus: rocks, mud and water – Cyprus provides an ideal outdoor laboratory for Earth and environmental science. The island of Cyprus is composed of a slice of the ocean floor, with everything from a section through the Earth’s mantle to the sediments that were deposited on the ocean floor now exposed at the surface. Later fluids passing through the rocks have led to mineralisation which has been mined. You will investigate photographs, drawings, geochemical and physical property data sets from the rocks, sediments and water on Cyprus to understand the changes in its environmental history.

Water quality monitoring – At the start of this 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 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.

Formation and habitability of planets – How do planets form? What makes a planet capable of hosting life? How we can tell? These are the exciting questions that science is now beginning to answer. You can get a feel for the challenges, pleasures and pitfalls of planetary science in this activity. After completing the necessary background, you will examine meteorites to extract evidence for how planets began to grow, and study detailed images of parts of Mars (obtained from orbit) to design a strategy for a lander mission intended to search for signs of life. This activity is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of geology, planetary science, astronomy, physics, environmental science, and biology.

We offer a choice for Activities 2 and 4. You will be asked to choose if you wish to take either, or both, of these options nearer the start of the module (in January 2014). Please note that places are limited.

Option for Activity 2

  • Igneous and metamorphic rocks in the field (residential school – subject to available places)

Igneous and metamorphic rocks in the field – This optional three-day residential school concentrates on teaching you how to collect field data from igneous and metamorphic rocks. You will complete three days of fieldwork in the northern part of the Lake District National Park, Cumbria, UK. There will be follow-up exercises in the evening, examining under a microscope the rocks that you have observed in the field during the day. You will gather data from two granite plutons intruded about 400 million years ago (Skiddaw and Shap) and the associated metamorphosed and structurally deformed rocks. The accommodation and laboratory work will be based at a purpose-built field centre between the towns of Keswick and Penrith. See the Residential school section below for booking details, and more information about the school programme, and the Residential School website for details of the venue.

Option for Activity 4:

  • Sedimentary rocks and fossils in the field (residential school – subject to available places)

Sedimentary rocks and fossils in the field – This optional three-day residential school will teach you how to collect data and interpret sedimentary rocks and fossils in the field. You will carry out three days of fieldwork along the beautiful Northumberland coast near to the market town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, UK. The accommodation and laboratory work will be at a private school – previously a stately home – about five miles from the centre of town. You will examine sedimentary rocks that were deposited about 350 million years ago close to a tropical coastline rich in terrestrial vegetation and marine animals. The rocks contain evidence for waves, storms, coral reefs, tree-lined rivers and climate change. See the Residential school section below for booking details, and more information about the school programme, and the Residential School website for details of the venue.

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.

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.

Vocational relevance

While studying a variety of interesting topics, this course will develop your problem-solving abilities, team working and use of computers for learning and communication. All these skills are likely to be useful in a work context, particularly for jobs requiring a precise and quantitative approach.

Residential school

This course includes two optional field-based residential schools. The three-day programmes will include both outdoor exercises and follow-up laboratory work. 

Igneous and metamorphic rocks in the field is based at Blencathra Field Centre in Cumbria and is run by the Field Studies Council on behalf of The Open University. It will be offered on two dates at the end of April and in early May.

Sedimentary rocks and fossils in the field is based at Longridge Towers School in Northumberland. It will be offered on two dates in late July.

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. Accommodation is available at the venues if required, and we recommend that you stay on site if possible.

You will be contacted near the start of the course (in January) to make your choice of options. Places on residential school options are limited and available on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis so we recommend that you respond promptly if you would like a place on a residential school activity. 

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 Earth and environmental sciences before starting this course. We recommend that you study SXG288 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.


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 mainly online (there is one printed text) 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 their 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.

If you select a residential school option, you will need to observe and interpret large-scale landscape features and small-scale features of rocks and fossils, while in the laboratory there may be microscope and mapwork. Good visual acuity is required, therefore, and preferably the ability to distinguish colours. If your sight is severely impaired you are likely to require an assistant for the practical work. Many students find that a friend or relative who is familiar with their requirements is ideal but you will have to cover the costs for their accommodation and meals during the school. Your Disabled Students’ Allowance, if you have one, will normally cover all the costs associated with assistant support. Even with an assistant, it is unlikely that you will be able to participate fully in the fieldwork or to achieve the learning objectives.

Travel to the field sites will be by minibus with uninterrupted journeys of up to 40 minutes each way. The majority of practical work is carried on out field trips to a number of geological sites which by their very nature are not easily accessible to wheelchairs or to students with restricted mobility. The days usually stretch from 09:00 to 21:00, with breaks for packed lunch and dinner. You may find it tiring to be outdoors for long spells. You can take rest breaks if you want to, by arrangement.

In general, if you’re able to make your way, without assistance, over dirt paths or, for distances of 2-3 kilometres at a time, and up to 5 kilometres per day, over grassland (sometimes up or down hill) or on seashores, you should be able to participate in most of the programme. If your mobility is severely restricted, 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, or if you are a wheelchair user, the residential school options may not be suitable for you, and we would advise that you study the non-residential alternative topic. Students who experience pain and fatigue or have other concerns due to a medical condition may also find the fieldwork extremely challenging or unsafe. 

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 sheet on the residential school website, and make contact with the residential venues before selecting these activities.

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 one text book and DVD-ROM.

The cost of the accommodation for any residential activities that you choose is in addition to the course fee. 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.

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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 SXG288
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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