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Microscopes- New View

Posted 09-02-2011 at 06:00 PM by TeachingKids

Remember when microscopes were pulled out of the vault once or twice a year, reverently removed from their screw-mount wooden cases, and carefully set up using a level and probably a T-square? We viewed them with a sense of wonder and talked about them in hushed tones, despite the fact that we couldn't see ANYTHING half of the time, much less what the teacher was expecting.

When I began my teaching career, I was honored to carry on the tradition of the awe of the microscope, hoping I could handle this great responsibility; I'm also happy to say it's currently NOT happening in my classroom!

When I moved into this lab, I immediately set up two microscopes on a side counter. Only a couple of the microscopes had their protective paper removed from the lenses, and I wanted to justify the time I spent peeling it off and preparing them all. I placed items related to our studies in baskets and trays, and allowed students to head over after their assignments to explore. I added to this collection of interesting objects throughout the year, as did my students. They also added "between class," "before school," and "after school" to their viewing schedule. I even had to mediate some student altercations regarding whose turn it was.

Before long, I had to put out four more microscopes to handle the daily demand for microscope use. Instruction is pretty informal. A student asks me to help them because they can't see anything. I show her the basics, and with this one-to-one tutorial, she gets it. Then she shows her friends, who show their friends... By the time I actually used the microscopes for a class lesson, they all knew how to use the scopes and we focused on the lesson.

Hmmm... more time to teach the concepts we need, less time running back and forth between groups and troubleshooting instrument issues. This has to be more effective.

Of course, the "toy" digital microscopes have become a part of this phenomenon. Not only do students entertain themselves by analyzing their nose hairs projected on a huge screen during indoor recess, but I can use them to give students a pretty good idea of what they are supposed to be seeing. This is invaluable to students who, like me, didn't want to admit they couldn't see anything but a black pointer on a gray blob.

Today, my microscope cabinet has a few attachments and expired warranty booklets sitting on a shelf, but no microscopes. They have ALL been in use every day, in almost every class, and sit out on a counter full time. (The cabinet is now just a summer home.) Students bring over materials they are using in current labs to get a closer look- no planning involved. They know they are available as a tool and they are quite adept at using them.

Did I mention that this is often the first experience many of them have with microscopes? If only I had mastered them as quickly!

So, our microscopes have lost their mystique. They get fingerprints on them and have to be cleaned more often. One of the dust covers has even ripped, and we are using a gallon-size ziplock bag instead. Sometimes I even have to remind students that running with them in their hands isn't a great idea. (Hey, they were pretty excited about what they saw!) I like the fact that I'm sending on a couple hundred students each year that not only think science is a really cool subject, but are confident they can do it. Maybe that's even more awesome than the microscope.
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