This module is concerned with the electromagnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation that pervade the world around you. It shows how the main ideas of electromagnetism can be encapsulated in the famous Maxwell's equations. These can be used to explain the properties of light and radiowaves; the magnetic fields produced by brain activity; the way a television tube works; the transparency of the cornea in your eye; and many other phenomena. If you're interested in the ways that physics and mathematics are used to understand the world around you, then this would be an appropriate module to study.

Course facts
About this course:
Course code SMT359
Credits 30
OU Level 3
SCQF level 10
FHEQ level 6
Course work includes:
4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
6 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
No residential school

What you will study

The module will give you a detailed understanding of the theory of electromagnetism, which is one of the cornerstones of classical physics. It shows how the essential parts of this theory can be summarised in Maxwell's four equations and the Lorentz force equation. It uses these to develop an understanding of a wide range of physical phenomena, from the behaviour of light to the electrical and magnetic properties of materials, and of a broad range of applications, ranging from astrophysics, through materials science and technology, to medicine and biology. The module will provide you with many opportunities to develop your ability in using advanced physics concepts and mathematical techniques (such as vector calculus) to describe aspects of the physical world and to find quantitative answers to problems.

The study materials include three books, accompanied by DVD-ROMs containing computer-based activities and video material.

Book 1, An Introduction to Maxwell's Equations brings together most of the key concepts of electromagnetism that are used in the module. Starting with basic ideas of electric charge and current, it develops an understanding of the important concepts of electric and magnetic fields, and shows how they are related by Maxwell's four equations. The culmination of the book is the demonstration that Maxwell's equations lead to the prediction of the existence of electromagnetic waves, and the identification of light as part of a spectrum of electromagnetic waves that stretch from short-wavelength gamma rays and X-rays through to longer-wavelength microwaves and radiowaves. The book builds on the physics in The physical world (S207) and much of the mathematics will be familiar from Mathematical methods (MST224). However, one of the major roles of this book is to show how the language of mathematics, and vector calculus in particular, provides a concise and powerful framework for describing electromagnetic concepts and phenomena and the complex spatial arrangements that are implicit in them. You will also see how the physical phenomena can give meaning to mathematical ideas and techniques that you may have previously encountered in more abstract contexts.

Book 2, Electromagnetic Fields shows how electric and magnetic fields are modified in the presence of electrically conducting and insulating materials, or magnetic materials. It equips you with a range of tools and techniques for determining the fields and forces due to various arrangements of charge or current. Other chapters are concerned with practical issues like how currents are generated, and the forces that are experienced by charges and currents in the presence of electric and magnetic fields. The book concludes with a chapter on superconductivity and a discussion of the insights that the theory of special relativity gives to the relationship between electric and magnetic fields.

Book 3, Electromagnetic Waves explores solutions to Maxwell's equations that correspond to electromagnetic waves, and uses a simple model to demonstrate how such waves can be generated by oscillating currents. By considering the propagation of electromagnetic waves in different materials and what happens to the waves at boundaries between materials, we are able to show that Maxwell's equations can explain many familiar results of optics, such as the laws of reflection and refraction, and can explain why the sky is blue and why light from the sky is polarised. Other chapters explore electromagnetic waves in plasmas, the ionised gases found in the ionosphere, in stars and in interstellar space, and discuss how the interaction of light with the cornea of the eye accounts for its transparency, in contrast to the opaqueness of other biological tissues.


This is an OU level 3 module that builds on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. It is intended for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject at this level.

The module is designed to follow Mathematical methods (MST224) (or Mathematical methods, models and modelling (MST210)) and Physics: from classical to quantum (S217) (or The physical world (S207) now discontinued). You would find it very difficult to study SMT359 without the necessary mathematical background. The parts of MST224 or MST210 relating to partial differentiation, multiple integrals, vector calculus and complex numbers are especially important. S217 is the ideal physics module to prepare you for studying SMT359, especially Units 9-14.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The Science Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For SMT359? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation. This can be viewed or printed as a PDF.

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

Preparatory work

Since the module builds on the physics in Physics: from classical to quantum (S217) and in Mathematical methods (MST224), we recommend that you revise the relevant parts of these modules in the months before you start to study SMT359. This is particularly important if it is some time since you studied these modules, or if the Are You Ready For SMT359? booklet indicates that there are gaps in your knowledge or mathematical skills. The booklet gives advice on the relevant topics to revise.

If you have a disability or additional requirement

The module contains a large number of diagrams, many quite complex and in colour, and many are essential to understanding the spatial relationships between electromagnetic quantities. There are also a large number of complex equations. If you have severely impaired sight, you might find these aspects of the module challenging. The study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. The books are available in a comb-bound format.

Study materials

What's included

Module books, other printed materials, DVD-ROMs, website.

You will need

Basic scientific calculator.

Computing requirements

You will need a device with internet access to study this module as a web browser is used to access learning materials and activities. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available. This module requires the installation of software from a hardware device e.g. DVD drive or USB stick. You may need administrative privileges to install software required for this module. Windows 10 S is not suitable as it restricts software installation to software available in the Windows Application Store.

A Windows desktop or laptop running Windows 7 or later operating system is suitable for this module. This module requires installation of Microsoft Windows specific software.

Some software will not run on Mac OS X, Linux, iOS or Android devices.

A netbook, tablet, phone, Mac or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers below may be suitable for some activities. However, these devices may not be suitable for one or more activities within this module. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to another suitable desktop or laptop device that uses the Windows operating system so that you can carry out all activities on your mobile device. You will need a broadband internet connection to complete this module. Better video performance is available with higher connection speeds.

Recent versions of the following browsers for carrying out web-based activities:

  • Safari
  • Chrome
  • Firefox
  • Edge

Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

To be able to talk and listen in our online discussions you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones.

Devices with small screens may make it difficult to view the material provided and carry out the activities. However, a device that has a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and also at least 768 pixels vertically should be adequate.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. There will be a number of etutorials that you can join and access via your computer. You will also be able to participate in tutorial discussions through online forums.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


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

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

You will, however, be granted the option of submitting on paper if typesetting electronically or merging scanned images of your answers to produce an electronic TMA would take you an unacceptably long time.

There will be a mixture of online interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs) and short tutor-marked assignments (TMAs), with a total workload equivalent of three full TMAs.

Both the iCMAs and TMAs will focus strongly on learning through practice rather than on assessment. The feedback you receive on your answers will help you to improve your knowledge and understanding of the study material and to develop important skills associated with the module. The feedback on the iCMAs will be instantaneous and hints will be given so that you can refine any incorrect answers. Although your scores on all these assignments will not contribute directly to your module grade, they form an essential part of the learning process and you will be required to submit a proportion of them to complete the module. You will be given detailed information when you start the module.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2017. It starts once a year – in October.

This course is expected to start for the last time in October 2019.

Professional recognition

This module, when studied as part of an honours degree in the physical sciences or engineering, can help you gain membership of the Institute of Physics (IOP). For further information about the IOP, visit their website.

This module may also help you to gain membership of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA). For further information, see the IMA website.