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  • A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science
    This Course Guide has been taken from the most recent presentation of the course. It would be useful for reference purposes but please note that there may be updates for the following presentation.

    SCI S122
    A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science


    Welcome to SCI S122 A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science.

    This course is a full-year, 10-credit, foundation level course for students seeking a Bachelor of Science degree (BSc) or a Bachelor of Science with Honours degree (BSc Hons) in the Environmental Studies programme of The Open University of Hong Kong, or those studying for a BSc (Hons) (with Management), or anyone with an interest in the wonders of biological and earth science phenomena. There are no prerequisites for this course as it is designed to ensure that motivated students from any background can embark on a journey into modern biological and earth sciences.

    This 10-unit course will provide you with a sound foundation in the concepts of modern biology and earth science and will be based on the local environment. Since the course centres on the diverse flora (plants), fauna (animals), and geological settings of Hong Kong, this course will be an ideal preparation to help you learn to work effectively in any role or job that influences, or is influenced by, the natural environment of Hong Kong.

    The study units, textbooks and self-tests will help you master the topics over a period of around 40 weeks.

    Purpose of this Course Guide

    As this course might be the first course you are taking at The Open University of Hong Kong, you might not be aware of both the study skills required for distance learning and how OUHK courses are organized. It is recommended, therefore, that you read this Course Guide thoroughly before looking at the study units or your textbook.

    This Course Guide tells you briefly what the course is about and how you can work your way through the material. It suggests the amount of time you are likely to need to spend in order to complete the course and will give you a general idea of when your tutor-marked assignments are due. For detailed information on assignments, however, please refer to the Assignment File. For information on the dates when assignments are due to be submitted, please refer to the Presentation Schedule.

    In distance learning as practised by The Open University of Hong Kong, the study units are coordinated and prepared in the distance mode of education by your university professor. You do not need to attend face-to-face lectures. This is one of the great advantages of distance learning: you can read and work through specially designed study material at your own pace at times and places that suit you best. Think of it as reading the lecture instead of hearing it from a lecturer. In the same way that a lecturer might set you some reading to do, the study unit will tell you when to read your textbook or other material. In the same way that a lecturer might give you an in-class exercise, your study unit will have exercises for you to do at appropriate points. You are also likely to find review questions at the end of each unit. Do them all, as these exercises and questions give you the practice necessary to achieve the objectives of the course and to pass the examination. Even when you 'make notes' in a direct face-to-face lecture, you are advised to study those notes, and to read and to think about them in relation to your textbook. In the distance mode of education the course materials replace the live lectures.

    Course aims

    SCI S122 A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science aims to:

    1. Bring students without an existing knowledge of biology and earth science into contact with key concepts and principles in current biology and earth science.

    2. Enable students who desire a refresher course in biology and earth science to update their knowledge.

    3. Provide students with a solid foundation in biological and earth sciences, thus empowering them to embrace further studies in degree programmes offered by the School of Science and Technology, OUHK.

    4. Help students to appreciate, value, assess, understand and enjoy the roles and position of biological and earth sciences in the HKSAR, Greater China and globally.

    Course learning outcomes

    Upon completion of this course, you should be able to:

    In biology

    1. Discuss the chemical basis of life and the structure and function of DNA.

    2. Explain how the cell transforms energy and distinguish between autotrophs and heterotrophs.

    3. Illustrate the importance of homeostasis and its relationship to multicellular life.

    4. Analyse the concepts of evolution and adaptation.

    5. Explain the importance of ecology and biodiversity.

    In earth science

    1. Review the geology, climate and landscapes of Hong Kong.

    2. Examine the concepts of weathering and erosion.

    3. Discuss soils, biota and environmental geomorphology, all in the context of Hong Kong.

    Course description

    SCI S122 A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science has been designed to create a structured, yet stimulating, environment in which to learn fundamental concepts of biology and earth science.

    There are a total of eight units in SCI S122 A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science: four in the field of biology and four in earth science. Each unit consists of three to six weeks' work. Please remember that you have to plan your own study schedule in detail. Most OUHK students are in full-time employment, and we at the OUHK understand that. Some students work in small bursts, others work through concentrated periods of intense study, while others might travel out of Hong Kong on business and take a selected unit (or part of a unit) of course work with them. Thus, study times, styles and methods can vary a lot but, whatever you do, please develop a plan based on our guidelines.

    Keep one administrative thing in mind: it is important that you complete your assignments on time -- and pass the examination. If you have difficulties please contact your tutor or Course Coordinator. Remember, they are there to help you with your studies.

    Course overview

    The topics covered in this course are shown below:

    Unit Title Weeks Assessment activity
    (end of unit)
    1 Cell biology 3 CMA1 (week 2)
    TMA1 (F)** (week 3)
    2 Multicellular life 5 TMA2
    3 Evolution and adaptation 4* CMA2
    4 Ecology and biodiversity 4 TMA3
    5 This place on earth: Hong Kong 4 CMA3
    6 Dynamic landscapes 5* TMA4
    7 Coastal landforms and landscape resources 3 CMA4
    8 Environmental geomorphology 3 TMA 5
      Revision 1  
      TOTAL 32  

    * includes a week for review, revision and concept consolidation

    ** TMA(F) = a formative TMA to help you prepare for the assignments that will count for marks

    The study units outline the objectives of each section, summarize key issues, explain the relevant concepts and examples, and comment on related readings. Each unit contains activities and self-tests to reinforce your learning of the issues under discussion. Moreover, the tutor-marked assignments will provide you with further feedback and help you achieve the objectives of the course. Indeed, please understand that the TMAs are designed to serve two interconnected functions: learning and assessment.

    The course is structured so that each unit builds upon previous units. Each unit contains a variety of techniques to help you study, and you should be aware that the following points will help you to get the most out of the information presented:

    1. Read each study unit carefully. This is like paying attention throughout a whole lecture. In fact the materials are better than lectures. When you attend a lecture, you may miss important points that are presented, and there is often little opportunity for these points to be covered again.

    2. Use the unit guide to help direct you in what to read in the textbook, when to read it, and even how you should read it (we will guide you in what to look for).

    3. Test your comprehension and analytical skills by working through the activities and self-tests that appear through the units. Don't skip ahead to find the answers -- you will learn better by doing the thinking yourself. Check against the answers once you have made an attempt to answer them.

    4. Try hard to complete the assignments on time.

    5. Check out the other sources of information referred to in the unit. Those other sources might include Internet websites, videos, and so on.

    The biology part of the course comes with two guides. The main guide is called the Study Guide for McFadden and Keeton's text Biology: An Exploration of Life. Just as you do not need to study all of that textbook, you do not need to follow all that's given to you in the Study Guide. So we have a Course Companion to show you how to use the Guide. The Course Companion is produced by the OUHK and is, in a way, a guide to the Study Guide. So please use the Course Companion with the Study Guide.

    Why do we at the OUHK have the Course Companion when the textbook has its own Study Guide? The answer is simple! SCI S122 is a foundation course in two science subjects: biology and earth science. The textbook in biology covers a huge amount of material, far more than anyone can study or, indeed, needs to study in one semester. And SCI S122 is a two-semester course covering two sciences. So we need to give you a Companion to help you in your visit to the main topics relevant to this SCI S122 course. We have selected this big textbook not to overload you but to give you a guided tour of biology, and as a resource for further study in more advanced biology. It is most important you understand this.

    You are not required to 'learn' all of your text, but you are to make a journey through your text. As you journey (tour) through the text, you will visit some of the big topics and outstanding ideas of modern biology. You will be expected to read the course materials in order to find your own answers to questions that are raised.

    Each unit has specific objectives, subject matter, self-tests and a summary of the material covered. A brief description of each unit appears below. We start with biology and then outline the earth science units.


    Unit 1: Cell biology
    This first unit focuses on the concepts underlying several important functions performed by cells. It starts with a study of the chemical basis of life, and then proceeds to study how cells transform energy through the processes of photosynthesis (plants) and respiration (plants and animals). The unit concludes with a study of the structure and function of DNA and the role that DNA plays in biological inheritance.
    Unit 2: Multicellular life
    There are two main parts in this unit. The first part focuses on the differences between unicellular (one-celled) organisms and multicellular (many-celled) organisms, and you'll also learn to describe and characterize the various biological processes of plants and animals. The second part focuses on homeostasis. This idea is about maintaining a fairly constant internal environment. A fairly constant internal environment helps to maintain normal functions. In this way homeostasis is about steady states -- a sort of equilibrium.
    Unit 3: Evolution and adaptation
    Evolution is about change in living things over time: long, long periods of time. Adaptation is about the inherited features of an organism which help it to stay alive and reproduce. The twin concepts of evolution and adaptation are studied in relation to plants and animals, and the concept of evolution is connected to the process of changes in genetic material (DNA).
    Unit 4: Ecology and biodiversity
    Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment. Biodiversity deals with the variety of life on earth. This unit logically divides itself into two parts. The section on ecology introduces key ecological concepts in today's world, and describes the importance of ecology as an important influence on our quality of life. The section on biodiversity emphasizes the importance of maintaining variety within environments and within genetic material. Field work will include a study of Hong Kong habitats and ecology.

    Earth science

    Unit 5: This place on earth -- Hong Kong
    Hong Kong's geology, climate, and landscapes are studied as the setting for life in the SAR and surrounding region, and you will be introduced to some of the tools (maps, aerial photographs, and so on) that earth scientists use.  
    Unit 6: Dynamic landscapes
    You'll learn, if you didn't know it already, that the saying -- 'as solid as a rock' is just a saying there's no geological truth in it anyway! You'll learn about the twin processes of weathering (the breaking down of substances) and erosion (the transporting and removing of weathered materials) and their effects on Hong Kong's landscape. You'll also learn the role that running water plays in changing the landscape. Landscapes change over time and no landscape is constant.  
    Unit 7: Coastal landforms and landscape resources
    Seawater is another major force that shapes landforms, and the first part of this unit deals with the dynamic (changing) coastal landscapes of Hong Kong. The second part deals with the soils and the biota (the animal and plant life of a particular region) of Hong Kong.
    Unit 8: Environmental geomorphology
    This final unit establishes the relationship between landforms and the urban environment in which you live. Geomorphology, the study of landforms, and engineering are two important disciplines in Hong Kong. Today Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a fact of life in Hong Kong. The effects of a new development project like the airport at Lantau require an impact assessment. Environmental geomorphology has an important job to do in EIA.

    How to work through the course material

    You should pay particular attention to this Course Guide and all instructions in the study units. You should attend all your tutorials where you will meet other 'distant' learners. Tutorials are face to face learning sessions. They are an important part of the student support system provided by the OUHK. Tutorials are not lessons. Rather, they are many-sided learning environments. You can come with questions. Your tutor can help you and other classmates in many, many ways. It is strongly recommended that you make use of tutorial time. Tutorials are provided for you, the students.

    Study units

    You must read the study units carefully as they can guide your learning and tell you how to approach any assignment related to the unit. Otherwise, you may miss important information. You must read both the study units and the textbook. They are not alternatives. Moreover, you are also encouraged to read articles in newspapers. These may help you see the day-to-day relevance of the topics studied. For those of you who can find time, you may like to look at other books related to the topics. But, as you will see, all the study units come with lots of examples and illustrations. This is especially true of our book about Hong Kong's geomorphology, so there is no real need to spend too much time searching for more information. Relax! Read! And enjoy your course!

    Each unit is divided into a number of sections. The first section provides the objectives of that unit. It introduces the materials to be covered. The next section constitutes the contents of the study unit. This section will guide your learning, help you to make connections and link concepts, and direct you to complete the self-tests. The final section contains the summary of the unit and answers to the self-tests. You may choose to read the summary first to get an idea of the main points before reading the content for more detailed information. Later, you can read the summary again.

    Non-assessed self-tests

    You will come across non-assessed activities and self-tests (sometimes simply called Questions) in each of the study units. These are designed to help you remember and apply what you have learned and to prepare you for your tutor-marked assignments and examination. The activity and self-test questions provide you with immediate feedback on your understanding of subject matter just learned. By answering these questions and referring to the suggested answers (included at the end of every unit), you can check your understanding and progress accordingly. However, you should attempt all questions before referring to the answers. In learning, it is the effort made to seek out the answer yourself that can greatly assist your understanding and learning process. To take a short cut straight to the answer from the question is not usually the best use of your investment in learning time. This is like finding a place yourself compared to being driven to a place. You remember better in the first case. Please believe that the questions/self-tests are designed with learning in mind. They are not clinical tests; they are not miniature exams. They are a tool in self-examination; they are learning aids. Such tools are very important in the distance mode of education. Indeed, some educators (good teachers, that is) ask students to think up their own questions about a topic. This thinking helps learning. Like to give it a try? You can, you know!

    Checking understanding

    While you are doing your study, please keep in mind the objectives of each study unit. After you have finished the unit, please check whether you have achieved the set objectives. If you encounter any problems, please make notes and raise these with your tutor as soon as possible, at the teletutorial sessions or by email to your tutor if that is possible. Come to your tutorials with your questions. This can greatly help your learning and be fun, too!

    Course materials

    In addition to this Course Guide, please make sure that you have received the following important course components from the OUHK.

    • There are eight (8) study units for SCI S122 A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science.

    • Don’t panic if you haven’t received all eight units in the first mailing you received from The Open University of Hong Kong. It is normal to receive your study units in two, three, or even four separate packages.

    • There will be a package of enrichment items to accompany the biology part (Units 1–4) of this course.

    Printed materials

    Set textbook

    There is one set biology text.

    McFadden, C H and Keeton, W T (1995) Biology, An Exploration of Life, New York and London: W W Norton & Co.

    Non-print media

    A video entitled Dynamic Landscapes of Hong Kong will be shown on TV on Sunday mornings (at a time and date to be specified). This video may be used during tutorials and will be made available in the OUHK library for individual student use. A locally produced (OUHK) video will further strengthen the local relevance and capture the biogeographic advantages of Hong Kong.

    Two compulsory dayschools (including fieldwork) will be required, one each in biology and earth science. These dayschools are deemed compulsory in that some hands-on science is a fundamental component expected of science courses worldwide. A lot is done in a dayschool. Indeed, one OUHK dayschool is equal to a whole series of individual, shorter lab sessions. You will be told of the dates well in advance so that you can free these dates from your other activities.

    Equipment required by students and tutors

    All students and tutors are encouraged to have access to a PC with an Internet connection, but you may also use the OUHK lab PCs.

    Course assessment

    The course assessment is designed to help you in progressing easily from the required readings to the assignments and examination. You will be required to apply the information and techniques learned during the course when doing the assignments. The assignments must be submitted to your tutor for formal assessment in accordance with the deadlines stated in the Assignment File. The non-assessed self-test questions are not part of your formal assessment, but these should be done before progressing to the tutor-marked assignments.

    Assignment File

    Assignment details for this course are contained in your Assignment File. The nature of these assignments is described in the 'Tutor-marked assignments' section below. You are required to complete your assignments and send them by mail (together with a tutor-marked assignment form) to your tutor in accordance with the timetable provided in the Presentation Schedule below.

    Presentation Schedule

    The Presentation Schedule is available on the Online Learning Environment (OLE). It gives the dates for completing tutor-marked assignments (TMAs), and attending day schools, labs and so on.

    Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)

    Five (5) tutor-marked assignments have been set for this course. One of them is formative (that means to serve as a guide) but the other four (summative assignments) count toward your final marks. You must submit all assignments to your tutor for marking. It is advisable that you should study, survey, read and examine material in your textbook, the Study Companion (if present), and even the broadcast video (if relevant) when you are working through and preparing your assignments.

    Computer-marked assignments (CMAs)

    Four (4) computer-marked assignments have been set for the course. Like the TMAs above, the CMAs must be submitted on time. You are required to do the CMA online on the OLE.

    Dayschools and field trips

    Two compulsory dayschools (including fieldwork) will be required, one each in biology and earth science. You must make every effort to attend them. Failure to attend means that the course cannot be completed. Your tutor will talk to you about this during the first tutorial.

    One TMA in biology and one in earth science will be strongly linked to the dayschools and fieldwork. Tutors will assess students' overall contribution to and performance in dayschools (see Assessment table).

    Assignment schedule (note when your CMAs and TMAs occur)

    Unit Title Weeks Assessment activity
    (end of unit)
      Getting started: orientation 1  
    1 Cell biology 6 CMA1 (week 2)
    TMA1 (F) (week 3)
    2 Multicellular life 5 TMA2
    3 Evolution and adaptation 3 CMA2
    4 Ecology and biodiversity 5 TMA3
    5 This place on earth: Hong Kong 5 CMA3
    6 Dynamic landscapes 6 TMA4
    7 Coastal landforms and landscape resources 4 CMA4
    8 Environmental geomorphology 5 TMA 5
      TOTAL 40  

    How to do your assignments

    For each assignment, please read through the question, and the instructions accompanying the question, in the Assignment File. Please read the question carefully and make sure you understand what is required before attempting it.

    Once you have completed each assignment, you must send it together with your TMA form to your tutor. Please make sure that each TMA reaches your tutor on or before the deadline. However, if you cannot finish your TMA assignment on time, you must contact your tutor before the deadline to discuss the possibility of an extension. Your tutor may grant you an extension of up to seven days. If more time is needed, you must obtain approval from the Course Coordinator. Serious cases of lateness (up to 21 days) will require the approval of the Dean of the School of Science and Technology. Such approval is not automatic, is assessed on a case by case basis and will require evidence. No marks will be awarded for any late assignments without prior approval obtained (unless the Course Coordinator or the Dean so approves).

    You must be careful when you are using other references in the research for your assignments. Plagiarism is copying someone else's work or ideas without indicating the original source of the material. The OUHK takes a very serious view of plagiarism, and any student who commits plagiarism will be penalized. This applies just as much to using work of other students as it does to authors of books. However, you may include references to the works you cite, e.g. (Shaw & Maxwell, 1999, p. 88). So, you could include a section at the end of your assignment called 'References' where the full name, title, date and place of the publication appear. The way to cite a reference is:

    Shaw, R and Maxwell, G (1999) The Geomorphology of Hong Kong, Hong Kong: OUHK Press.

    This citation technique is a normal and necessary part of science. It is good training to learn to acknowledge your sources of information as you do your TMAs. Look at Appendix 7 at the back of your biology textbook. Appendix 7 shows you how to list and cite references. This citation system is part of intellectual honesty and is most important in scientific literature. And, if you look at it another way, the fact that you say (write) something and someone else supports what you wrote (the work [person] you cited) adds power to what you have said.

    Tutors and tutor-marked assignments

    Your assignments will be marked and commented on by your tutor, who will keep an eye on your progress and assist you if you encounter problems during the course. Marked assignments will be returned to you as soon as possible. Please check with the Registry or Course Coordinator if your assignment is not returned within a month from the date of your submission.

    It is a very good practice to keep a copy of each assignment submitted for marking, so that you can always refer to the queries with your tutor during telephone conversation. Also, if the assignment is lost in the mail, you have an immediate back-up copy. Hence, please contact your tutor should the following arise:

    1. You do not understand any part of the study units or the assigned readings.

    2. You have any difficulty with self-tests (called Questions in the Study Guide and Course Companion).

    3. You have a question or problem with the assignments, or with your tutor's comments or grading on an assignment.

    Apart from self-study, tutorials will also be organized to assist you in your learning process. Details of the dates, times and location of the tutorials as well as the name and phone number of you tutor will be sent to you in due course. Some tutors may have an email contact too, and don't forget to form small study groups with your friends as well. As mentioned above, your tutor's comments on your TMAs are very important. They aim to help you learn.

    It is strongly recommended that you attend all these tutorials, which will provide considerable assistance in your study of this course. Moreover, you will have the chance to meet fellow students and other distance learners who are studying at the OUHK.

    Final examination and grading

    The final examination for this course will be of three hours' duration and count for 50% of the total course grade. You should use the time between finishing the last unit and the examination to review the entire course. But, at university level, it is wise to study in a planned, periodic way well before the final exam. Mature and hard-working students in the distance mode of education may need to be flexible in both study habits and times. You might find it useful to review your self-tests, tutor-marked assignments and your tutor's comments on them and the computer-marked assignments before sitting for the examination. You will be advised of examination arrangements after you send in your examination registration card.

    The final examination covers information from all parts of the course and will be in a form you have already experienced in self-tests, computer-marked assignments and tutor-marked assignments. Do not worry that the examination will contain tricky questions. That would not be consistent with the clear, open approach the OUHK takes to helping its learners succeed in their studies.

    The following table tells you the total marks allocated to the assessment and to your final examination. In order to pass any OUHK course, you must pass both the tutor-marked assignments component and the examination.

    Assessment type Marks
    TMA1 (formative) is paired with TMA2 (summative), and then the best three of your four summative tutor-marked assignments will be selected to count up to 30% of the total SCI S122 assessment value. 10% each x 3 = 30%
    The best three (3) out of the four (4) CMAs will be selected to count up to 15% of the total SCI S122 assessment value. 15%
    Dayschool overall performance score (DSOPS) 5%
    The three-hour examination will comprise computer- marked questions, analysis and longer-type written answers 50%
    Total 100%
    Student support

    Tutors and tutorials

    The Open University of Hong Kong prides itself on the support given to its distance learners. That means to you! While you may think you are studying on your own, it doesn't need to be that way. You can be in regular contact with your tutor and, once you've met them in the first tutorial, you can be in contact with your fellow students. Make a point, when you meet a fellow student, of exchanging phone numbers and email addresses. Then you will be well on the way to developing a learning network of your own.


    A package of eight tutorials (four each in biology and earth science), two lectures (by the Course Coordinator), two dayschools (inclusive of field trips), two optional field trips, two short labs and six surgeries will be provided. Tutorials are held with your own tutor and other members of your tutor group. Tutorials may include a range of activities, such as short talks, briefings, course content reviews, explanations, discussions, question and answer sessions, TMA preparation and guidance, lab follow up discussions, and reviews of CMAs. A surgery is run by one tutor, and students from any tutorial group are invited to attend. Usually a surgery focuses on solving problems, answering specific questions and helping individuals with study worries.

    The only compulsory component will be the dayschools. The optional field trips (OFTs) will be led by the Course Coordinator and local (Hong Kong) resource people to sites of special biological and geomorphological interest in Hong Kong and will function as enrichment excursions for the dayschools. These OFTs will be linked with the OUHK Environmental Society (OUHKES) and Hong Kong Geological Society.

    Online support


    Delivery of the IT enrichment materials accompanying both texts will take place through a series of supersurgeries although, if you have your own PC set up (as described earlier under 'Course materials'), you can use those materials at home. The concept here is to hold an SCI S122 surgery in a PC lab and maximize personal student interaction with tutors, videodisks, computers etc. in a multimedia environment. In this way a surgery may take on a new and strongly interactive life.


    SCI S122 A Foundation Course in Biology and Earth Science is intended to provide you with a sound foundation of knowledge about the concepts of modern biology and earth science. A special effort is made to relate the knowledge and concepts to the Hong Kong environment.

    In order to understand the content of this course, you must analyse the course materials and apply the concepts learned. We hope that you are able to apply the knowledge and skills from this course throughout your career.

    Good luck, but what I really mean is strong success, in this course. You'll enjoy it!

    A note about the developer of this course

    Dr Maxwell has been a teacher, lecturer, researcher and consultant in the fields of biology, ecology, education and environmental impact assessment both in his native country of New Zealand and in many places throughout the Asia Pacific, including China, Hong Kong, Brunei (North Borneo), Japan (Southern Islands), the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. He has been getting to know Hong Kong's fantastic flora and fauna, hills and valleys, people and places for 21 years. Dr Maxwell has degrees in science, education and philosophy and holds professional membership of the UK Institute of Biology. He is a Chartered Biologist, a Member of the Environmental Institute of Australia, and a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London (FLS). He owns a forest of 18,000 pine trees in New Zealand and manages this using sustainable eco-forestry based on advanced soil science, geomorphology and genetics. Dr Maxwell was an Assistant Professor in the Environmental Studies programme of the School of Science and Technology, OUHK.

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