Monday, 18 December 2006

S103: Block 5 - Energy

Block 5 - and the subject and title is Energy.

Its all the stuff you might expect. What is energy, what is power, work. What units do they use, and how do you calculate it.
It covers most basic forms of energy such as the Sun, gravitational potential energy, and stuff like the latent heat of vaporisation.

There are quite a few equations in this book, but the good news is its only 67 pages long! I managed to do most of this book while lying in bed with a thick cold. I know a number of people found this book a little harder than the rest of the course so far. Its perhaps the maths and the scary looking equations, although really they are not that bad.
The course is often described as starting nice and easily, and then the content starts to ramp up, and this is perhaps the first indication things are getting quicker and deeper.

The associated TMA, TMA-4 is split between block 4 and this block. There are 3 questions on block 4.
A question about k and r species.
Another question about food webs, net productivity and so on where you have to calculate biomass increases.
Then a 250 word paragraph about species on the Galapagos islands.

Then a question on specific heat capacities with a few calculations.
Finally a question about kinetic and gravitational energy.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

S103: Block 4 - Unit within Diversity

Block 4 and its time to get into some biology.

Book 4 is called Unit within Diversity and covers a fair bit of biology in not much depth, but goes into a fair depth in the ecology and evolutionary aspects.

It starts out discussing what is life, and some of the historic moments in the science of biology. There is a brief chapter about cells and genetic material, then its into the main topic which is the diversity of life.

There is quite a lot of DVD work in this book, several hours in total, where you get to explore the Galapagos islands and make inferences about adaption and speciation. The dvd ahs a lot of question and answers coupled with film clips from various experts discussing the finch population and the marine iguanas. I can still here the learned doctor on the DVD saying "Correct" and "No" even after the course has finished, he has quite a distinctive style.

There is also a big section on ecology, building up food chains, and looking at the energy used in a food web, what depends on what etc. We get to find out how many oak trees are required to raise one bird of prey, through caterpillar and blue tit intermediaries.

There is no TMA specifically about this block, but the next block will be included. So its onwards and upwards.

Friday, 3 November 2006

S103: The second mailing arrives

The second mailing arrives - which is always an exciting time! A big cardboard box with a load more books, the experimental kit and some notes and stuff.

As mentioned in the previous article, I'd had to wait for this mailing before I could continue as the rock kit is required for one of the exercises in block 3.

One nice thing in this block is how thin some of the books are. Book 5 for instance is so thin it doesn't even have the title printed on the spine. There is a certain amount of relief with this discovery. However after experience with the blocks, you find that sometimes the shortest blocks have the longest experiments or DVD exercises.

This mailing takes us all the way up to block 8, and with it arrives the question for TMA-4, 5 and 6. Its best not to look at these to early as they often look impossible before you start the blocks.

Anyway, no excuse now, onwards

S103: Block 3 - The Earth and its place in the Universe, TMA-3

Block 3 is a bit of a strange block in this course. Its called "The Earth and its place in the Universe" The overall theme of the whole course is "Taking the world apart and then putting it back together". I'm not too sure how much the theme helps, and how much it constrains some of the topics.

Anyway, block 3 starts with some astronomy, and where we are in the universe. Then it moves onto newtons laws of motion, which are I suppose vaguely related. It then goes into volcanoes, plate tectonics and the rock cycle. You kind of get the feeling a number of bases had to be covered and two or three books have been condensed and glued together. The text is fine and very readable, and no jumps so its not a cut and paste job, but the swift change of subjects does feel a little odd for one book.

Book 3 also introduces the practical kit which arrives at about this time, although I had to wait a while as I was a couple of weeks ahead of schedule at this point. It has a collection of rock samples, a set of fossils and some other bits and pieces to be used in experiments later. One of the exercises is to identify the rocks with help of the notes. This is very similar to one of the lab sessions in SXR103.

The TMA for this one is not too bad.
The first question involves working out orbital periods, and involves drawing another graph. Its basically getting you derive Keplers laws. There were a few who stumbled on this one based on some of the forum comments. Its one thing to draw a graph, its another skill to use a graph to work out a value, or even to realise you can use a graph in this way.

The next question is about earthquakes, and you have to draw a cross section of the crust and fill in lots of details. Its not too bad but took be about 5 goes to get an appropriate scale to fill the page. I also resorted to colour to show the different structures.

Finally the 3rd question looks at magnetic survey data and gets you to work out the plate drift rate.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

S103: Block 2 - A termperate Earth?, TMA-2

Its on to block 2 - which is mostly about temperatures and climates and some of the science behind it. It looks a lot at global warming and the evidence, but doesn't go into too much detail - they are still breaking you in at this point, teaching you about notation, how to do powers of 10 and so on.

TMA-2 is all about temperatures. In question one you have to calculate some 7-year mean averages, add some extra points to a printed graph and do some explaining.

Question 2 requires plotting a histogram of some data given about temperatures. Then from this data you have to work out what sort of rainfall would be expected in a given month, and then convert the answer into SI units.

Question 3 and its a small essay on the effects of global warming on flooding in 300 words (max of 350) - it gives you quite a lot of help specifying what should and shouldn't be included, and a diagram is required. You have to draw such diagrams by hand, which I've argued with the powers that be at the university a couple of times. I don't like doing them - partly cos I'm a rubbish drawer, but mostly because it means my report is scattered around. Most of it is word processed, and then I have to leave a gap and fill it in later. I usually return to the TMA-s a few times before posting them, and tweak them or correct a spelling - which then means redrawing the diagram again. BAH! Well rules are rules...

Question 4 is about greenhouse gases, you have to explain why greenhouses gases work, and you have to draw a molecule.

Finally - you are asked to explain how you prepared the report and if you think your technique will work for bigger reports. I posted two versions of this - see if you can work out which is the real one!

Answer A

I constructed the answer to question 3 by first writing down the information I remembered from the text in brief sentences. I then added the diagram, and went back to the text to fill out the explanation in more detail. After that I re-read the explanation and reformatted and changed some sentences around so the piece read more logically and in a better order.

I need to read the questions more carefully, but I think this approach works for me and will scale up to larger works.

Answer B

I wrote up a description of the water cycle and how it affects flooding together with some speculation about the effects, the likely impacts and the long-term outlook. I then re-edited it a bit with some additional text, and found I was up against the word limit.

I did some editing and collapsed a few sentences, got quite a succinct answer but there was a lot of detail to get in, and I was still quite close to the maximum 350 words (like within 5).

I then discovered, completely by accident that there was a part b) to this question, and that my answer to part a) had answered most of part b) too. This, by deduction helped me work out what should and shouldn't be in part a) a little more clearly. So I reread part a) more carefully, and then ended up deleting about 2/3 of the original answer as it was now no longer relevant.

I was now well under the word limit, so thought I ought to expand on the answer a bit, and filled it out a bit. It read much better now. Another re-read of the question and I found I'd missed out at least one of the asked for descriptions still, so I went and added that in at the relevant point.

The answer was now approaching the 350 words again by now, so I went back and trimmed the fat, collapsed a few sentences, deleted some bits that seemed extraneous. I went and re-read the question one more time, and this time I thought I'd got it all down pretty much. I was just over the 300 words but under the 350 max. I think I had all the bits that I wanted in, but I felt it was lacking a concluding sentence. So I added one of those in and then looked around to remove some text to make up for that. I decided one of my points could actually be part of the conclusion so moved that around and chopped it around.

Then I decided the first sentence was a bit pants, so rewrote that 3 or 4 times, and then decided it probably wasn't adding much to the whole thing, and deleted it, and squeeze a minor point it made in else where.

Another count and I was around the 310 level, surely there must be 10 words I could delete somewhere. I found a few spurious adjectives that could go, but then some of the sentences sounded a little bit funny, so I rewrote them slightly. I moved a couple of them around, and changed the punctuation a bit. I wasn't convinced it read that much better... but at least now I was at, lets see... 310 words! What the...? By now I'd spent well over an hour on a measly 300 words of description, and I wasn't even in the running for a booker prize!

Frustrated it had taken so long, I decided it was time for bed, and saved the document. Stumped off to the stairs, and then thought better and went back and saved the document to my pen drive, thinking I would be more than a little peeved if I lost the document at this stage.

Later, I got my wife to read it, she made some good comments, and I changed a few of the sentences around, and ended up with almost exactly 300 words.

Friday, 20 October 2006

S103: First Tutorial

Its the first tutorial date, and I, after a little time with multimap, google maps, microsoft live, and an A-Z, am fairly sure I can find my way across the city to the secret location.

I've got a full tank of gas, a battered A-Z, its dark, but I'm not wearing sun glasses - hit it!

I roar off down the road, the radio is blasting out "Quote/Unquote" - anarchy has nothing on me, and the adventure has begun.

15 or 20 minutes later, and I've found the entrance to the school. Further more, I've found the car park, and wonder of wonder, a lit entrance with signs of life. Things are looking up!

I enter the building and approach the person on reception. I see a big sign saying something like DD123 tutorials in room 17. This looks encouraging. I say I'm here for the S103 tutorial.

"Oh yes" says the man, "That'll be room 101 - through the double doors and straight on".

Hmmm - room 101 has an ominous ring about it, positively Orwellian, not to say Merton-esque...

Through the double doors and past a lot of other doors - none of them with numbers on them. The lighting is not the best, and if this were a film, something bad would be about to happen, with the music rising to a creepy crescendo about now. I've come to the end of the passage, and it turns left - maybe I've missed a room or something...

WAIT - I'm sure someone following me! I consider my options, what would Jackie Chan do?
It turns out to be a fellow student and he's on the same search, so we pool our resources. The corridor makes another sharp turn, have we come too far? I see a number 47 finally - there is hope. We find a room 54, and a few others, but nothing approaching the 100s.

We are just wondering whether to make bivouac here for the night, when someone emerges from a nearby room, and lets us know that this is the S103 room - number 44. Ah, Ok.... Whatever...

I sit down and unpack a few notes and folders. There are 4 of us and the tutor, and we do a bit of idle chatter while waiting to see if anyone else finds us (unlikely I think!). Its at this point that the most useful bit of information of the entire tutorial is reveal. The purpose of that funny black plastic bit in the front of the study file.

You can insert the back cover of the current block book into it and it keeps everything together. I'm deeply impressed, and am still playing with it to this day. What WILL they think of next!

Our tutor decides to make a formal start, and introduces herself, and we begin the introductions. Then the door opens, and a security man shows in another 6 people, presumably lost souls who had been stalking the corridors like we had. We start again. What our background is, what we are looking forward to, and what we're not looking forward to.

In approximate order, the general trend for the not looking forward to subjects are Maths, Writing English, and Time management. No real surprises there.

One more person joins a few minutes later, having probably been directed to the basement somewhere.

Our tutor tells us a bit about herself, her role, what we can expect, some of the rules for TMA's and so on.

Some of us have had our materials for a while, others are still unwrapping theirs, and some are still awaiting arrival.

We have a brief break, but all refreshment machines have been switched off apparently, and on investigation the toilets are locked! A brave party decides to venture back to reception hoping to find an unlocked toilet, we never hear from them again... until the start of the next half.

The second half of the tutorial we do an exercise. We have a packet of liquorice allsorts, and we have to come up with a classification scheme.

After some discussion we decide to avoid the more obvious eaten and non-eaten category.
We categorise on shape, size and colour. Then we eat them.

A few more questions and answers and then its the end, we huddle together for support down the dark corridors but succeed in finding the exit without too much problem. I make my way home, picking the wrong road twice, but hey:

I survived tutorial 1 - Mission Acomplished!

S103: First TMA

OK - so its time to see if I can cut the mustard.

TMA (Tutor marked assignment) number 1. Basically its a bunch of questions to answer on the course so far to show your understanding of what you've read and done.

There are various complex rules about TMAs. Apart from the obvious, that they must be your own work, and without plagarism. To pass the course you have to score above an average of 40% on all TMAs. However you can substitute a bad TMA's by an averaged mark, so one bad one won't drag you too far down. Some TMA's are not substitutable though, so it all gets a bit complicated.
However if you do reasonably well on all the TMA's you'll pass. You also have to pass the ECA (End of Course Assessment) too - but that's another tale.

TMA-1 is different though - it doesn't count. You have to submit it in the usual way, but it doesn't matter what score you get - in fact you don't get a score, just comments. Your tutor marks it and tells you where you did well, and what you didn't get right. Thus when you do TMA-2 which does count, you'll know what's expected at least.

You quickly learn there are certain things they are keen on you getting right.
Units is one - you should use SI units wherever possible.
Another is significant figures. You are given rules of thumb for working out significant figures and how many places to give your answer to. So 3 x 1.2 should be given as 4 for instance, rather than 3.6.

Question 1 gets you to do various simple calculations involving percentages, density and so on. Mostly its looking at simple arithmetic and sig figs and units.

Question 2 gets you to look at a graph of a ball dropping and describe in words what its telling you.

Question 3 is to write a paragraph of 120 words about sweating in humans.

Question 4 is reflective, asking you to describe your study techniques and what you might improve.

I get a fairly good report on this TMA. It mentions I should use units throughout calculations more, and to consider keeping an extra significant figure until the end of the calculation to stop rounding errors.

Saturday, 30 September 2006

S103: Potatoes have feelings too.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, find out the water content by percentage weight of your average potato. This is a block one experiment.


After some time spent reading through the book, it was interesting to have a break and start some practical skills. Lets see, by heating the potato in the microwave, we can drive off all the water held in its cells, and see how much of it there is.

Now - what equipment do we need.
  • A microwave - check!
  • A potato or two - check (Maris Piper, unpeeled, 3).
  • A calculator - check
  • Scales - check (digital ones, weighing in 5g increments - wooooh!)
  • Notebook - check
  • 5 year old helper - hmm, not mentioned in the notes.


First job, find a suitable plate. I decide I want a lightweight one so that it won't affect the scales too much. If the plate weighed 10 kg, the scales probably wouldn't be very sensitive to a few grams change in weight.

Now - slice up the potato, and already my helpers attention had started to wander. I wanted to slice them thin for speed, but decided I just needed to get on with it while the attention was focused on him trying to switch on the calculator.

Right - so into the nuke and blast for the first 4 mins. Out it comes, and its a little warm. We measure the weight, and I write down my first figures. I return the potatoes to the oven, while my helper tries to weigh his hand.
After a little bit of dissuasion, he's back on the calculator, now having got it switched on. So I ask him to type in the numbers whilst doing the arithmetic in my head as a double check. We have a few false starts...

By now the next 4 mins is up, so I do another weighing. I hear the calculator clatter to the floor.
Anyway, another weight recorded, and back to the oven. I turn around, and there he is is, trying to weigh his head this time, and read the numbers at the same time.

We do some more calculator work, and then he wants to know why crocodiles and caimans don't both live in the amazon.

The microwave peeps, and the calculator clatters to the floor. Another measurement, and my helper is getting quite good at subtraction. I manage to persuade him that weighing other parts of his body is really not worth it.

The next record and the calculations are definitely wrong, where we'd been subtracting 55g, he now wants to see just how many 5's he can get on the display. I think I've just found a new source of errors...

We're down to two minutes between bursts now, and there is barely time to drop the calculator and recover it between the measurements, but he rises to the challenge majestically.

The potatoes are now looking distinctly crisp shaped, and are very hot when trying to separate them.

Another couple of blasts, and there is no change in measurement, so I pronounce it done. The calculator clatters to the floor one last time in celebration.


A bit of calculation, and I come up with a figure of very slightly over 80% for the water content.

I reflect upon the geniuses whose shoulders I am standing on, Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein. I wonder if they'd have seen further with a little helper?

Friday, 29 September 2006

Starting S103

So september comes around, and with it a large pack of books, papers, CD's and DVDs. Included was
  • Three text books
  • A pair of DVD programmes
  • A pair of DVD course materials
  • A set of course notes
  • A set of course guides
  • A stop press notice
  • A glossary
  • A folder
  • A bit of black plastic
  • Various introductory and other guides
  • A checklist
  • The first set of TMAs

I unpacked the contents on the kitchen table and tried to make sense of them. There was a lot of stuff there, and it was difficult to untangle it at first. They only send part of the course at this time, as they don't want to swamp you with information and make you run and hide.
However even with this reduced load I found it difficult to make sense of what to read first, second and so on.

They usually have a set of things, so you get a course guide - which is a one page synopsis of the chapters, and estimate of how long each part will take and what other media might be used. Then there is the course notes which have longer exercises to do for each topic. There is the course book too - which is where the main learning comes from. I usually forgot about the other two documents until prompted in the book to read various bits.

I tried going through the things in various ways, but in the end I couldn't really see which was the way to read these things. I gave up and just started reading book 1, The Water of Life which seemed to work out ok. Having done science before, the book was pretty straight forward being a nice gentle introduction to some science concepts.

Meanwhile the OU forum jumped into life. A lot of early comments about things. Tutor groups hadn't been allocated and people were getting all wrapped up in the idea of travelling hundreds of miles to tutorials. Lots of speculation on this that and the other.

It had the definite sense of we were all setting out on a journey together.

Saturday, 26 August 2006

To S103 or not to S103 - that is the question

After my time at residential school - in fact on the last morning I wondered aloud to the course director if I should take S103 or not.

On the plus side, it would be good experience working in a more long term course, TMA (tutor marked assignments) and having a tutor would all be good experience.
I had looked into the idea of credit transfer, but for that it needed certain documents to show what I already had, and although I could probably find my degree certificate within a day or two of rummaging, the details of the modules and courses I did I don't think I have any record of.

On the other hand, I ought to be able to do the course quite easily, having done a science degree and having found the other courses I'd done at level one not too hard. And then again it was like £560 pounds to do it - not the sort of sum you casually toss around on a whim.

In the end, I decided to do it. My geology and chemistry were a little weak, I wasn't sure how much biology and physics I might have forgotten, and I had a feeling that doing things the OU way would be useful.

The deciding factor was that in September, none of the level 2 courses I was interested in were running, they all started in the following February. So, I decided I'd sign up, get the 60 points on offer (hopefully). I'd also work hard to get as far ahead as I could, and if things were going well, I could sign up for a course in Feb to run parallel with the 2nd half of S103.

It seemed like a plan.

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

Back from the residential school

Back from the school, and starting to recover. I have an ECA (End of Course Assessment) in my hand, that needs to be completed with about a month.
The advice at the school was to do this as soon as you can, as a lot of the questions focus on the practical work you did, and your memory for the details fades quickly.

I had to write up one of the physics experiments and draw graphs, do some analysis of ecology data and a few other things. It wasn't that hard, but did take a day or two to get it all down.

With the ECA posted, we just had to sit back and wait. It takes a long time for it to be marked. I did the school in mid July, and got the result a few days before Christmas. By that time I couldn't remember much about it or where I might have gone wrong. I scored 77% for this one, which I was vaguely annoyed about. I thought I'd done better than that, and the feedback was of the general nature across all answers "Students answer this question well on the whole, those that failed ..."

Anyway, I decided by this time to just write it off, although I heard from one or two of my fellow students that they too were surprised at the level of the mark.


Friday, 14 July 2006

Off to residential school

While working on my planets and fossils courses, the residential school material arrived.
I finished and submitted the planets/fossils so had plenty of time to read through the preparatory material, and get a copy of the good sciences guide to read too.

I found this second book very boring to read - partly because you shouldn't read it as a book, but use it to help you with specific topics. I also knew a fair bit about it.

I did worry before hand if I could tackle SXR103 without doing the main course, S103, but in the end decided my previous science experience would carry me through. The course was advertised as a standalone one, but it seems to have been a fairly recent change (last few years) so I wondered if it was just for the purposes of advertising.

I'm not going to write up my experiences, as I've already done so else where.
See the informal account and the more formal account I modified so the OU could use it directly.

Friday, 26 May 2006

The Planets

I've always had an interest in planets, and this course seemed like an ideal opportunity to explore this more. I mean, I knew what they were all called, and where they were more or less, I'd even seen Partick Moore talk about them live.

It came with
  • A course book
  • A Teach Yourself Planets book (always referred to as TYP).
  • A CD with images and facts on
  • A couple of Computer Marked Assignments.

The course looks at each of the 9 (as there were when I started it, but not by the end!) planets, and other solar system objects in detail, and a final chapter on planets around other systems.

Besides the basic facts or orbits and moons, there is a fair bit about the geology of each planet, or at least as much as is known.

The multi choice CMA at the end is harder than it sounds. Some of the questions it is quite hard to argue for which ones are right. I found one of them seemed to hinge on exactly what a planetary body was - the course books themselves have 3 different definitions.

Anyway, another 10 points accumulated.

Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Fossils and the history of life

Another large cardboard box arrived.
Now this one had
  • A course book
  • A colourful atlas of ancient life
  • A couple of ECA papers
  • A DVD
  • Some notes
  • A pack of fossil casts
The encyclopaedia is very colourful, but a little difficult to balance when lounging on the settee trying to read it. The course book is quite thorough and keeps directing you to read various bits of the atlas.
Its a fascinating course as we move from no life, to early life to the cambrian explosion and so on.
Then horror of horror, you have to use the supplied fossils with a supplied hand lens, and SKETCH them. Draw? DRAW? Don't they know I can barely write these days and I do all my work on computers? I've never been much good at drawing, so this is a bit of a shock!

I make a valiant stab at it - but lets face it, it wont win any prizes!

There is also confusion about the difference between bivalves and brachiopods - the rules seem simple but the most common of fossils flaunts the rule cruelly.

Anyway, this course finishes with a CMA (Computer marked assignment) so its pick one of A,B,C,D,E,F etc, or in some cases two or three. So there is no worry about getting the words right - but the questions are a lot more difficult than they sound.

Anyway - this one you can submit online if you like, so I did that, and passed he course. Another one down!

Saturday, 1 April 2006

What to do next?

With genetics done, and a bit more confidence in my abilities, the course material, and starting to work out how everything came together at the OU, I looked around to see what else I might tackle.

There are quite a number of science short courses that are of a similar length to the SK195 one.
I had a look at what was on offer.

Quite a number - but I needed one that started in May. Also after considering the speed I did the SK195, I probably ought to be able to manage two at the same time.
So - after a bit of deliberation, I picked the S196 Planets: An Introduction course, and the S193 Fossils and the History of Life courses.

Also at this time - I looked at the various degree options and what these courses could count for - if anything! It was soon obvious that to get any science named degree it required the basic science foundation course S103 Discovering Science and the associated residential school SXR103 Practising Science.
The main course didn't start until September, but it said you could take the residential course without it. So that's what I decided to do. After all - there are only 3-4 residential weeks in a year, so you have to measure those carefully if you want a degree in a short time.

So - a new plan for the rest of 2006.
Planets and Fossils short courses, then the residential school, then see what the options are. Probably S103.

Thursday, 23 February 2006

SK195 Human Genetics and Health Issues

I had to phone up the OU to get onto this course, as I was about 2 days past the deadline, and whilst they allowed you to register late for this course if you thought you would be ok with that, you couldn't do it online.
I was a bit nervous about the step. I hadn't studied or taken tests in years. Would I still be able to study at university level? Just how hard would it be? Would my free time be enough to cope with the course?

Anyway, I was committed now, and a few days later a box arrived with all the details. It had:
  • A book,
  • a DVD
  • a set of exam papers (known as the ECA - End of Course Assessment)to be completed at the end of the course,
  • some study notes.
With the enthusiasm of a new toy I set out on the course. With a fair bit of relief I found the course was reasonably easy with my existing knowledge of genetics. There were one or two words that I wasn't so familiar with - karyotype for instance. I know I'd heard it before but its just not something I had come across in some years.

I finished reading the book and watching the videas about a week and a half later. I started on the ECA. The ECA took a further week on and off, going back to the answers and tweaking them a bit. I also logged onto the OU firstclass electronic conference and took part in one or two discussions, but it wasn't a very lively lot doing the course at that time.

Monday, 23 January 2006

Studying with the open university

It was early in 2006 I decided to do some studying. I can't remember exactly the reasons why, but I decided it might be interesting to study in a real sense some of the things I was interested in.

I picked the open university, as I had vague plans of a degree at some point. The Open University is an accredited body that can issue degrees and is all correspondence based, so I could keep my job too.

So I signed up for a course, 2 days after the start date. It was either that or wait 3 months for the next one. It was a short course, which you can do over 10 weeks or 3 months or so. You either submit the first or the second ECA (End of Course Assessment).

So I picked SK195 as I was interested in genetics, and that's where it all started.

Sunday, 1 January 2006

Life studying for a 2nd time

This blog contains an account of my studying for a second degree.
What's different the second time around, what its like, what's changed, what's new. That sort of stuff.