Tag Archives: Open University

Turn on, tune in, drop out

Decision made. This is quite an achievement for me, because I’m generally terrible at making decisions. I even disagree with Magic 8 Balls.

I’ve dropped out. Dropped out of S216, but not out of my OU degree. But that is a good thing: there is no guilt here (hoorah!) because I just don’t have the time or motivation for this course at the moment.

Having found myself needing a week’s extension for TMA04, then watching the week’s extension fly past with a satisfying “whoosh” sound, then coming to the realisation that I hadn’t even thought about my project, I arrived at the conclusion that I have too much going on at the moment.

I feel lighter already. It’s an enormous weight off my mind; I can concentrate on building my new business (did I mention it’s called Sunflower Communications?), make sure I actually enjoy my holiday to Germany in September, and look forward to starting S207 The Physical World in October. I’m very excited. It’s all about physics!

The OU has a very good system: I’m transferring 30% of my S216 course fee to S207, so I’m getting 30% off my next course. I’m fine with that, because I’ve got all the course books and materials for S216, so I’ll read them at my leisure over the next few months.

I can’t help feeling that if the course had been more like S104, I would have struggled far less to find time for it. I hope so. S216 has been a disappointment to me, but I suspect that is at least partly my fault – although I still say to the authors: please discover and embrace paragraphs!

So off I go. Good luck to those still doing S216; and bring on S207! Physics ROCKS.

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Clouding the issue

Just a quickie. I found this site via the S216 tutor group forum, and think it’s fabulous. Images of clouds from space, looking like you’ve never seen them before. Splendid stuff.

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/05/gallery-clouds/all/1

Enjoy!

Starting S216: Environmental Science

My S216: Environmental Science course materials have arrived! Cue much rejoicing, general study planning, and a little list-making.

A brief aside on the topic of world maps:

Among the six books and the DVD pack was also a wall map of the Earth’s surface. It’s the Mercator projection, which has always bothered me. People’s sense of geography is not based upon fact, but upon the Mercator map, and has been ever since it was first produced in 1569.

What we think the world looks like...

Representing a spherical object on a flat surface is always going to present problems, but the Mercator projection is not even close to being area accurate… Africa is frickin’ huge. MASSIVE. As is South America. The main problem with this map is that the further the land mass is from the equator, the more its size is distorted. Thus, Greenland becomes a similar size to Africa.

However, in 1855, a clergyman named James Gall produced his own version of a map of the world, known as the Gall-Peters Projection. This has its drawbacks, too, but the areas represented are much more accurate. See – the northern hemisphere is puny in terms of landmass size compared to the south:

How the world really looks...

Back to the books:

Anyway. That’s enough of maps (although I LOVE maps – if anyone wants to buy me antique maps, feel free).

The first block of S216 is a virtual field trip to the Teign Valley in Devon, and is DVD based. Then we’re on to the books, which sound very interesting indeed…

Book 2: Air and Earth.

Part One – Air: We’ll be looking at the atmosphere. It’s cold outside, and there is an atmosphere. I’m all alone, more or less. Then there’s the weather, and weather observations. Followed by the ins and outs of the atmosphere, and the global weather machine including ocean circulation and that pesky El Niño.

Part Two – Earth: Comprising rocks and minerals; igneous rocks; metamorphic rocks; fragmentary rocks; and the weathering of rocks and minerals. Then there’s an introduction to soil – what it is; soil ecosystems; and soil processes and properties in the environment. I’ve got to be honest; this section doesn’t sound so interesting…

Book 3: Water and Life. This is quite an alarmingly thick book.

Part One – Water: All types of water. What happens to rain? Ground water; a journey down a river; and the hydrological cycle. I like water. I’m reading a biography of water at the moment, and it’s bloody fascinating. Water is strange stuff; it doesn’t obey the usual laws of liquids. There is nothing as sweet as water when you’re really, really thirsty.

Part Two – Life: Vegetation patters; resources to support life; and ecological dynamics. This is one of my areas of interest because I am a tree-hugging hippy who wants to save the world, one turtle at a time.

Book 4:  Landforms and Cycles. This is a more reassuringly thin book.

Part One – Landforms: A bit of physical geography, which I loved at school, and which has stayed with me throughout adulthood. The way the Earth’s roots works fascinates me. So we’ll start with plate tectonics and an introduction to landforms, looking at lithology, and how water shapes the landscape inland and at the coasts. Then we look at ice, and wind, and finally landforms in space and time.

Book 5:

  • Extreme weather
  • Atmospheric chemistry and pollution
  • Wetlands and the carbon cycle
  • Cryosphere

Book 6:

  • Oceans and climate (this one, I’m looking forward to)
  • Water quality
  • Eutrophication
  • Acid rain

Book 7:

  • Grasslands
  • Tropical forests
  • Biological conservation

Books 5, 6 and 7 are going to interest me particularly. This is a beast of a module, and I’m under no illusions as to how much work I’m going to need to put in. Structuring my life is going to be incredibly important over the next few months, so that I have time to spend with my husband, my friends and my family – not to mention the me-time that will be spent doing yoga and pole dancing.

But last year was fiercely busy, and I enjoyed it immensely. So I’m not fazed; and in fact, I can’t wait. Bring on 2012. I’m ready for you.

Exam results and existential crises

The good news

The day finally arrived yesterday: we received our results for S104: Exploring Science. There was much excitement and anticipation in the land, and verily did we leap into the course website with glee.

I’m delighted actually – I got a distinction! I knew I’d done well, as I have achieved consistently high marks throughout the course – but the end of module assessment was genuinely tricky, so I’m really pleased.

  • Overall examinable score (OES): 87%
  • Overall continuous assessment score (OCAS): 93%

The self-indulgent navel gazing

The results come at a good time, actually, because I’ve been dipping – rather self-indulgently – in and out of an existential crisis over the past couple of weeks. It struck me, rather more forcibly than I would have liked, that I’m 32 years old and I am not where I thought I would be.

The fact that 1990 is more than 20 years ago keeps assaulting me in an unnecessarily violent manner. I shouldn’t be old enough to remember 20 years ago, surely! I keep thinking of Britpop as a modern phenomenon.

My mortality and the foundations of my existence are at the forefront of my mind, which troubles me. Navel gazing is not becoming, nor – do I feel – is it particularly helpful if it lasts longer than about 15 minutes.

I should have been so much more than I feel that I am at the moment.

Having said that, I would not turn the clock back 15 years for anything; I’m wiser, happier and feel smarter and more attractive than I did when I was but a whippersnapper – I’m just not quite where I thought I was. Either that or the world moved sideways slightly when I wasn’t looking.

I’ve always felt slightly out of time. The 1920s, 1940s or 1950s would have suited me much better than these modern times (female emancipation and general equality notwithstanding). The music, the clothes and the manners of the times delight me. But perhaps we are living in even more exciting times as we prepare to send human beings to another planet…

Getting my Open University results has given me a bit of a kick back onto the right track. It’s only a level one course, but it was bloody hard work, and I really feel proud of myself. Roll on S216 – I’m ready for you.

And while I’m waiting for you, I’m diving headlong into books on science to try to get a head start. Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” is my current literary beau, and a splendid read it is too. I’ve been advised by a colleague to try a little Stephen Jay Gould as a different viewpoint to Dawkins, to see which evolutionary camp I fall into, so Amazon was duly visited, and Gould ordered. We’ll see where I end up.

Where I want to be is saving the world, one turtle at a time.

Hallowe’en silliness

With the ending of S104, I have been struggling to blog; not least because I’ve been reading as much silly crime as I can get my hands on. On my new Kindle. Which my lovely husband presented me with as a surprise on Friday!

I’ve struggled not only with finding a topic to blog about, but also with the words themselves, which bothered me. So I have devised a plan to see me through until S216 starts in earnest (sometime next month, as I have the PDFs already – nothing like getting a headstart!): I’m going to pick one of the Daily Mail’s “science” stories every few days, look at the original research paper/press release myself, and then write the article as it should have been written. Truthfully and objectively.

But before I begin that mammoth task, I feel I should share with you all a stupendous achievement – our Hallowe’en pirate ship pumpkin. Our lovely friends Dawn and Nick had a party to celebrate their engagement on Saturday night. Dawn is mildly obsessed with pirates, and loves anything to do with Hallowe’en. Plus she’s bonkers. So Joe and I carved her a pirate ship pumpkin.

Behold:

Happy Hallowe'en!

Explosions and loose ends

I have Explored Science.

I handed in my final, examinable assessment this week, and – bar the Grand Waiting For Results – my level one course with the Open University is complete. I have a very good feeling about the final assessment (the EMA); I enjoyed completing it, and didn’t find it as frightening or difficult as I expected. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not…

My feelings at the moment are mixed: I have adored this course with a passion normally reserved for cheese. It’s been an eye-opening, mind-expanding, boggling and awe-inspiring journey, that has often afflicted me with a penchant for too many superlatives. But the Universe is a very large and splendid place, so the odd superlative isn’t necessarily out of place.

However, I’m now both sad that the course has ended, and at a loose end. What now? I find myself wandering aimlessly around the house, tidying and generally finding Things To Do. I started by placing myself in the vicinity of a large glass of wine, but frankly there is only so much of that one can do before one becomes the local lush, so here is a run-down of my Saturday night.

Brace yourselves…

My esteemed and marvellous husband has invited his blokey colleagues to our house for a game of poker. Now, normally, I would take myself to my study and study furiously – but I have no studying to do! And worse – I have no broadband (this is having profound effects on my sense of civilisation; I’d be rubbish in an apocalypse that involves sending us back to the Stone Age) so this blog won’t even reach cyberspace until who knows when. Which is now. Tuesday.

So what have I done with my Saturday night? Well may you ask. It has involved explosions, funk and groove. People: I have Done My Paperwork! Paperwork that has built up since March this year. I’ve filed, organised, stapled, punched holes and recycled like the crazy party animal I am. But before you write this off as a really dull way to spend Saturday night, bear in mind that I have been drinking Waggle Dance throughout, and that my hole punch exploded.

That’s right; there are holes EVERYWHERE. My study is covered in holes. It looks like an example of chaos theory, which is appropriate to my course of study, but not to my innate and, some may say uptight, sense of order and tidiness. It’s making my brain hurt. And I can’t bring the vacuum cleaner in and sort it out until tomorrow, because Joe’s colleagues will think I’m a mentaller.

Woe.

The Indian Summer will continue tomorrow, and I shall make a longbow and a knife. After clearing up the holes, of course.

Exploring Science

As this blog is following and documenting my adventures in science, it seems that I should say a few words about S104 Exploring Science for any prospective students of the Open University.

I’ll start by stating, in no uncertain terms, that this is a Very Difficult Course, particularly if there is no (recent) background in studying science or maths. This is not a light, adult-learning-style, interest-only course: it’s full on, in depth and requires an awful lot of hard work.

If any prospective students are not truly interested in science and really committed to learning, it will be extraordinarily difficult. I work full time, and I try to have a social life too – I have struggled to find the hours required for this course.

However, and I can’t emphasise this enough, S104 Exploring Science is absolutely bloody brilliant. It is Professor-Brian-Cox-jazz-hands-brilliant. Finding the time to study has not been, in any way, a chore.

Some aspects of the syllabus have been easier than others; some have interested me more than others. But overall, it’s fantastic.

Here, I need to pay tribute to my wonderful husband – I could not have done this without him. He has been supportive, interested, helpful (especially with the maths and physics) and he has become a very good cook. Joe’s patience is seemingly never ending, and I know he’s really proud of me. I am proud of him. And I am so grateful.

Anyway. Enough mush. Here are the facts, figures and ravings of an S104 Survivor.

For those thinking of starting S104, I would recommend that you do some reading first – partly to see if you really are that interested in science, and partly because it will give you a good base to build upon. I found Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science to be a great introduction to scientific method, and it’s a good read to boot. His blog is fab.

We Need to Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown is also a good read. One of the more wonderful moments of this course was when I realised, in a bolt of inspiration, that I actually understood what I had been reading about a few months earlier.

And as preparation for when you arrive, breathless and exhausted, at the bottom of the mountain that is Quantum Physics, give Jim Al-Khalili’s Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed a whirl.

In fact, just read everything you can get your hands on, in the daily media, online and in journals such as New Scientist.

Before beginning, brush up your maths. Maths used to terrify me. It’s well worth doing the Open University’s freebie maths book to start.

Exploring Science is a nine-month course, and the course team recommends that a minimum of 16 hours per week is put aside for study. I have found this to be fairly accurate, albeit the study time is probably an average. Most people will find some topics require far less work, while others require much more (biology and quantum physics, please stand up!) .

There are eight books covering different topics, and although the order may seem slightly odd when you first see it – it does all fall into place:

  • Book 1 – Global Warming. This is a fairly gentle introduction to S104, and jumps feet-first into a subject that is bang up-to-date – climate change and all that goes with it.
  • Book 2 – Earth and Space. Geology and geological processes are introduced in part one, while in part two we leave Earth and venture out into the Solar System. Again, this is not too taxing, and is a decent way to ease you in.
  • Book 3 – Energy and Light. Physics-lite – I began this book reminiscing about GCSE physics, and remembering a surprising amount. By the end of the book I realised that this was Grown Up Stuff, leading my thoughts in directions they would never previously have contemplated. The maths began to pick up pace; and rather than becoming baffled and afraid, I developed a deep and abiding love for a beautiful and elegant discipline.
  • Book 4 – The Right Chemistry. Again, it begins with a recap of GCSE chemistry, then steamrollered into the kind of stuff that makes you wonder if, by the end of the course, you’ll be able to run your own meth lab. Fascinating. And if, like me, you were once afraid of the mole, this book will cure your fear.
  • Book 5 – Life. Biology. It’s the thickest book of the lot, and it’s stroppy with it. Life lulls you into a false sense of security, starting with the difference between autotrophs and heterotrophs, looking at prokaryotes and eukaryotes, before steaming into the minute detail of the reactions that make up photosynthesis. Think you know how plants make their food? Think again!
  • Book 6 – Exploring Earth’s History. An interest in fossils and geology will mean you sail through this book. It’s absolutely fascinating, and is a grand illustration of how absolutely everything in our Universe is connected. Our planet is a staggeringly beautiful and complicated place, and I am humble before it.
  • Book 7 – Quarks to Quasars. Mind-bending stuff. But give it time, read everything VERY carefully, more than once, and it WILL make sense. I promise. I found that writing notes in my own words was really helpful.
  • Book 8 – Life in the Universe. I’m not there yet. But the book promises to pull together all the aspects of S104, enabling us to build a complete picture of how the separate disciplines tie together. All branches of science are connected, and feed into each other. It will be good preparation for the End of Module Assessment.

Everybody’s techniques for studying are different, but this is how I approached Exploring Science. As I read through each chapter, I highlighted relevant concepts, ideas and facts, making notes in my own words. I also, as you have probably gathered, began this blog. It is, in part, a method of finding out if I’ve fully understood what I’m learning: if others understand my tales and explanations, it’s a good bet that I have.

Talk to your loved ones: bore them silly! I am lucky to have a husband who is almost as fascinated by this stuff as I am, and many of my friends are crazy about science. (I thank you all so much for listening, reading and generally being interested. I love you guys!)

Use the tools the Open University gives you: do all the activities, because they really do consolidate your learning, as well as being good fun in many cases. The questions dotted throughout the text are brilliant, testing your knowledge and understanding before you come to do the assessments.

And speaking of assessments: at the end of each book, you are required to complete an iCMA (interactive computer-marked assignment) and a TMA (tutor-marked assignment). These contribute to your overall mark, as well as helping to pull together everything you’ve learned.

A good tactic for the iCMAs is to write them out in rough before you enter the answers. My first one was pretty shameful, purely because I hadn’t read the instructions properly! In my excitement at starting the course, I achieved only 80%…

For the TMAs – read the questions really, really carefully! Sometimes the OU examiners do not use language in the way you may expect… I found that leaving the TMAs right until the end of the book meant that I was a little stressed about getting them in on time. The questions helpfully tell you which chapters you should have finished before attempting to answer – I would advise that the TMA is completed as you go along.

Use your tutors, that’s what they’re there for. They are a great source of support, if you’re lucky enough to get a really good, dedicated person. The tutorials are also a good source of support, as well as helping you meet other students.

Use other students too: the tutor forums can be helpful, if you get a good group – or join the S104 group on Facebook. I’ve made some lasting online friends through that, and it’s made me laugh until I cry on more than one occasion. You are not struggling alone.

And finally: enjoy it! It’s been a fantastic experience, and I’m genuinely sad at the thought of the course ending (although I cry at the news, so don’t let that be a measure of normality…). Good luck, and remember:

“What we have learned is like a handful of earth. What we have yet to learn is like the whole world.” Avvaiyar, Indian poet-saint.