In science disciplines, one of the key challenges to course design is the need for students to acquire laboratory knowledge and skills. In the case of the geosciences the detailed analysis of minerals by optical mineralogy is critical to an understanding of the origin of rocks. Optical mineralogy is the study of minerals and rocks by measuring their optical properties (refractive index, birefringence, extinction angles, pleochroism, etc.) in ordinary and plane polarised light. Acquisition of petrographic skills takes time and occurs gradually through engagement with a suite of formative and summative assessments over a four-year degree programme. However, due to resource limitations, most students receive only 2-4 hours of microscope access per week.

The development of the virtual microscope (VM) by the Open University has introduced a step change in teaching and learning of Earth Sciences. It provides users with an effective tool to examine the microscopic properties of rocks and fossils with flexible 24/7 access. In addition, because students and course designers are able to work with the same thin section, it is possible to monitor the quality of the student learning experience more effectively by directing attention and discussion to the most pertinent characteristics of the specimen in question.

This project sought to develop open-access teaching and learning resources in the form of interactive exercises and assessment rubrics for the virtual microscope. An outstanding feature of the virtual microscope is the ability to geo-reference any location on a specimen slide, similar to saving places on a GPS. This permits the design of self-guided, discovery-style virtual exploration tutorials in which students navigate from site to site, interpreting in ever-greater detail to increase understanding.

The project also actively explored the potential application of the VM and teaching and learning resources to other scientific disciplines, especially the biological and physical sciences.

For further information, please contact Pat Meere on: 021 490 4576 or, email:

The Geoscience e-Laboratory (Ge-LAB): Developing Digital Teaching and Learning Resources for the Virtual Microscope

Project Team
Dr. Pat Meere, School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences

Trinity College Dublin
National University of Ireland Galway
University College Dublin
The Open University

National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education; Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund 2015 (Building Digital Capacity)

January 2016 - June 2015

Office of the VP for Learning and Teaching

Oifig an Leasuachtaráin Foghlama agus Teagaisc

East Wing, Main Quadrangle, UCC