Sunday, September 18, 2011

The microscope "e" lab kills science

Telescopes, when introduced too early, kill interest in astronomy. Everything moves the wrong way, the field of view shrinks to impossibly small increments of sky, and, alas, a star is a point of light no matter how powerful the scope. Nothing looks like the pictures (with the startling exception of Saturn, if you can find it).

The first night out ends in tears--Daddy's upset because he bought the most expensive one he could afford, spent an hour setting it up, and now he's standing outside, alone, trying to line up something, anything, that looks interesting enough to justify the money spent on a tool no one knows how to use.
He could have saved everyone a lot of grief had he bought binoculars instead--greater field of view, everything's where it's expected to be, right-side up, and it works right out of the box.

Yep, it's not narly as powerful--only magnifies 10X instead of 500X--but it will provide years of enjoyment, its body worn smooth by hundreds of hours of use, while the telescope languishes in the closet.

It's not about power, it's about seeing.

Every year students learn the parts of the microscope, and every year we drag them through the infamous "e" lab. Cut out the letter "e" from a newspaper, mount it correctly on a slide, look at it in the scope at various mags, figure out its orientation.

The most interesting part of the "e" lab may be seeing the "e" move left when you push the slide right, up when you push the slide down. But we don't talk about the why, that's for physics, and they haven't had that yet.

We trade stories in the lounge--Can you believe she thought the air bubble was alive? That he cut out an upper-case "E" from a headline? That she couldn't see anything because he forgot to turn on the lamp?

And then we wonder why a few children don't even pretend to care when we finally bring in some pond water full of wiggly aliens, full of life, full of wonder. There's just no reaching some kids.

For the love of Zeus, why  the letter "e"?


I just used a coffee maker, and it worked, even though I have no clue what the parts are called. I only used it because I wanted a cup of coffee. I did not learn how to use it until I wanted to make coffee, and I would have thought you mad if you tried to teach me about it before I liked coffee.


Here's a microscope lab that works:
1) Use dissecting scopes instead of the traditional compound scope. You can look at things whole, alive, in 3-D. If those are not available, get your hands on magnifying glasses--they do the same thing.

2) Bring in live wiggly stuff. Earthworms, sow bugs, beetles, snails, slugs, mosquito wrigglers, whatever. Give a brief demo on how to use the dissecting scope, let a couple of students peek in, then stand back.

Really--within minutes, the more adept will be teaching the less adept, kids will have a better grasp (and love) of slugs you could ever generate with a Prezi, and the kids will learn how to use the scope proficiently (which really doesn't matter anyway, when you get down to it).

If you've never used a dissecting scope, get your hands on one--it will change your universe.
Microscope quiz lifted from here--it's been passed around since Leeuwenhoek first drew it. 

If my biggest worry is how to grade something like this, well, I'm on the right path.


Unknown said...

My parents bought our kids a science kit. They grew frustrated with the microscope (I did, too) but we use the magnifying glass at least once a week.

I knew better than to go for the telescope. Give me a vast canvas of stars on a clear desert night. Let me go a few hours out of town. We'll stare out in wonder, the kids and Christy and me. I used to see that more as poetry or art than science, but I suppose it's the art of observation.

Alex said...

I always found using dissecting scopes a whole lot more fun than the compound microscopes.

What you're talking about with the 'e' is my biggest problem with the practice of science teaching - we teach them facts without giving them context or application. Who cares if they can label the parts of the microscope if they can't use it to do some fun exploration?

Unknown said...

I would suggest starting with bottled water. It will magnify, but not resolve very well. Then move to a magnifying lens. So much can be learned at this level, and the manipulation is easier. It teaches about lenses, focal lengths, and resolving power. Then switch to two magnifying lenses. Try to determine focal lengths and use them together. Look at natural and man made things. Look for detail and texture.

Then move to the dissecting scope and then the compound scope. The best lessons I tried were first to look at water from different sources, and then to teach how magnification distorts the speed of microorganisms in water. Distance per unit time (speed) can be estimated from a dissecting scope using a marked standard to look at field size, and then time movement across the filed of different organisms.

I have started a blog to look at exceptions to common biological rules, in an effort to increase student interest in core concepts. Everybody likes a rule breaker - and these stories tell of animals that photosynthesize, of ears that MAKE noise, of bacteria that grow bigger than they supposedly are allowed. I invite readers to check it out at, "As Many Exceptions as Rules" ( Each post includes websites for more information and possible classroom activities for the core concepts presented.

Lawrence Tang said...

I am a guilty father who bought a kit. Well thanks for the tip, I will be using magnifying glasses instead.

Liam said...

So true ! I never really questioned it before, but that make so much sense. Thanks for the tip!

Mary Ann Reilly said...

You must have been eavesdropping at my home. Dev had to name the parts of the microscope for homework the other night. He returned the worksheet 2 school with a speck of sauce & a bit of grease. Might be more interesting to look at the smudges, instead of the letter e.

Joanne McLarty said...

I agree with your love of the dissecting microscope. My problem is our elementary school only has access to compound scopes. I will bring in my dissecting microscope from home (my Christmas gift when my kids were small) but the students will need to learn how to use a compound scope as well - without smashing the lens into the slide!

My favorite lab is pond water. No matter what time of year it is there are loads of critters - micro and macroscopic.

doyle said...

Dear Joanne,

I cannot imagine why a young child would use a compound scope unless it was to look at pond water, and even then, it would require a fair amount of assistance.

I bet if every classroom had access to a dissecting scope, more kids would see micoscopes as something fun. I bet more teachers would use them, too.

Thanks everyone for writing!

GNEvans said...

Mr Doyle, I happened upon your blog in search of something else and am so glad I bookmarked it. I am a science teacher in Florida, and I feel like you are speaking for me the words that I would say if I were so eloquent. I just read your microscope entry yesterday and as a great lover of the microscope I had to laugh and shake my head at how right you are. Last summer I brought home a microscope and prepared for my 2 elementary school boys to be amazed, but ended up a total failure as I realized that the concept of "wet mount" was not something they were ready for. They kept trying to stick rocks, bugs, etc on the scope and eventually we ditched the idea and I admit I was a little sad. Today I retrieved a pair of dissecting scopes and a couple of owl pellets and after several hours of moving from owl pellets to cabbage worms, feathers, shells, rocks, coins you name it... I want to thank you for teaching this teacher how to reach her own boys!

doyle said...

Dear GNEvans,

Aren't dissecting scopes great?!

I learned this lesson not so long ago, as I dove into astronomy. Everyone wants the most "powerful" scope when binoculars allow one to see with some sense of perspective.

I'm still not sure how biology became tech training for microbiologists, but in my class (which has plenty of scopes), the magnifying glass rules.

penn said...

So yes to this! I'm glad to know there are other teachers as "crazy" as me (side note: I don't think I'm crazy). I love dissecting scopes. Even more, I really love something called a magiscope. It's like a dissection scope, sort of, except with less parts and less complication. I use that to do pond water samples, as there's still plenty of cool stuff to see.

Can't wait for school to start in the fall. I finally have a license, so I can be "in charge" in the classroom and make decisions. I'm looking forward to doing more inquiry and exploration and less pointless memorizing.

doyle said...

Dear penn,

Thanks for dropping by! I need to go Google magiscope.

Good luck with your own classroom!

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

Love the analogy of the coffee maker--brilliant. I suspect the compound microscopes are in classroom because among the first things we study are cells. But I agree that dissecting scopes are MUCH better for student-centered learning. I'm going to look up Magiscope as soon as I hit PUBLISH.

Danielle said...

In my area, the earliest you're introduced to microscopes is in eighth grade- and that's if you're in advanced science. We do the same thing- learn about the parts, get the "e"s out, and everyone can understand what's going on, how to work the microscope, and most importantly, how to have fun with it. In my class we were allowed to put anything we wanted in a slide (within reason). It can be really interesting and I found that once you've got it, you've got it. It would've been more difficult if my teacher would've taken them out and then put them away for a while, but we used them pretty frequently.

doyle said...

Dear Jeffrey,

I suspect you're right--biology is all about cell, of course, but I think most (not all--see Danielle below) lose something when they jump from naked eye to compound microscope.

Please let me know how the Magiscope works for you.

Dear Danielle,

Sounds like you had a good teacher!

Have you used a dissecting scope? I wonder if you have any thoughts about the differences.

Thanks for dropping by!

Goddess of Biology said...

Yes! No letter e!! I don't teach the scientific method, either. We just do it. Too much time on things that don't matter - we need more time on real science. Thanks for your ongoing thoughts - always stimulating!!

And, Brock Magiscope - got them over 20 years ago and still use them, with upper level high school, too. Great to take in the field. Virtually indestructible (though kids can if you tell them that) and the best? Looking at the stuff in their fingerprint, or the edges of their nails.