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Evaluating contemporary science

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Effective communication is essential in science, but do you ever wonder whether articles written about science in the news are thorough, unambiguous and objective? This module will enable you to explore contemporary areas in science, examining the ‘science behind the news’, and offering some choice in the areas that you will individually investigate. Key skills you will develop include searching current research, critiquing and evaluation methods, risk analysis, decision making and the communication of science. You will also explore different methods of collaborative working in a digital environment – the module is delivered entirely online, with no printed materials.

What you will study

In everyday life we often meet advances in science, usually through reports in the media. The way science is reported is important as it can influence decisions and behaviour. For example, the suggested link between the MMR vaccine and autism illustrates how stories can develop far beyond the original scientific report and consequently influence the behaviour of the public. Therefore, you will appreciate that effective communication is essential for scientists. You will begin this module by exploring how science is peer reviewed and published before becoming news. 

Next, you will study some recent original scientific research articles evaluating how closely they match some related news or other media articles. The contemporary topic we will use is plastics in society, looking at the many multidisciplinary problems in their production, use and disposal, and, where possible, some potential solutions. Aspects of plastics here will span several disciplines including: 

  • the health effects from the leaching of chemicals from plastics (for example BPA)
  • the formation and properties of microplastics
  • their environmental and ecological effects in the oceans
  • their presence as an indicator in geological deposits
  • novel plastic materials 
  • the science behind the recycling of plastics.

As part of your evaluation of the science behind the news, you will investigate how datasets are analysed and represented, an increasingly important area as more large datasets in science are being made available to the public. You will also be given the opportunity to work with some datasets in this module.

As you proceed to a second contemporary topic in science, you will select one from several interdisciplinary scientific topics that you will individually investigate in more depth. The topic you choose should suit your previous studies to allow you to apply your prior scientific knowledge to a contemporary real world issue. In parallel, you will also be encouraged to assess the wider implications in society of the science that you are exploring. 

Finally, you will adopt the role of a scientific advisor, presenting your own findings as a poster in an online ‘science conference’ for your fellow students and as a separate briefing document. You will be fully supported in developing the important employability skills that you will practice and improve during these activities, such as presentation, critical analysis, awareness of societal impact and decision making. Furthermore, the study materials work through some recent scientific topics and provide guidance on planning your own literature search, analysing data and communicating the information. 

The module is ideal preparation for anyone planning a career in science, particularly those intending to go on to study one of the Science project course modules. As part of your first piece of assessment you will develop skills to deal with information that is not familiar to you and present your findings in a given written style. Two intermediate submissions will help you to further develop important independent learning such as data analysis and presentation skills, and preparing a scientific poster with an accompanying recorded audio pitch. For the final assessment you will adopt the role of a scientific advisor and present your findings as a short briefing document. 

You are expected to check the S350 website and online forums frequently, and take part in group discussions in online tutorials. You will also be introduced to working with Open Studio, an online platform, to participate in a student conference involving peer support and feedback. Note the module is delivered entirely online, with no printed materials.


You will learn

By studying this module you will learn to:

  • work independently with cutting edge scientific research
  • develop and improve the knowledge, understanding and skills required to deal with scientific information
  • present scientific information in various media.

Entry requirements

To register for this module you must have successfully completed at least 60 credits of science at OU level 1 and 60 credits of science at OU level 2. This will ensure that you have some of the knowledge and skills required to develop further in this module.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

Web-based text, software and access to The Open University library. 

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either an up-to-date version of Windows or macOS.

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part. If you want to participate, you’ll likely need a headset with a microphone.


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

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances you must inform the University and negotiate with your tutor about submission on paper.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S350 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Evaluating contemporary science (S350) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2021.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2023.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school