Teaching resources


Teaching the skills of recognising, identifying and classifying minerals in thin sections is normally an activity that happens in lab classes using polarising microscopes and hand specimens, and in an ideal world this remains the primary teaching method.

However, the world isn’t ideal. Sometimes there are more students than polarising microscopes, and for some students there are no microscopes. There isn’t always enough time in the microscope lab class for the slower students to complete all the tasks, and the best students could achieve more if they had access to the labs out of hours. What if students could undertake microscope-based projects outside lab time, revise at home for practical exams, or even take microscopes to field trips?  Our intention in creating the Virtual Microscope for Earth Sciences is to augment conventional teaching of petrology skills, and to make it available outside the confines of the laboratory.

The United Kingdom Virtual Microscope (UKVM), our first collection in the new virtual microscope website, is a series of teaching collections similar to those that can be found in university teaching collections and in museum collections, and in fact that’s where we acquired the samples you’ll see. We encourage you to experiment with the virtual microscope for teaching and, in particular, the capability to use the location and measure features, sharing the microscope views using email and even in your own institution’s virtual learning environment. However, the virtual microscope works just as well with a PC or a tablet, and a simple sheet of activities that can be supervised in the lab and completed later.

The teaching collections currently in the United Kingdom Virtual Microscope for Earth Sciences that you can use as the basis for mineralogy and petrology teaching are:

Igneous rocks

1.       Caledonian intrusions and lavas

2.       North Atlantic Igneous province

3.       South West England granites and mineralisation

Metamorphic rocks

4.       Ancient Scottish metamorphic rocks

5.       Caledonian high temperature regional metamorphic zones

6.       Low grade regional metamorphism

7.       Contact metamorphism

Sedimentary rocks

8.       Triassic sandstones of northern England

9.       Jurassic and Cretaceous carbonate rocks of England

          10.   Classic and iconic rocks

We’re planning to expand the UKVM and other collections over the coming months and years, so we’re open to suggestions and ideas. Just email us at .

Related projects


The Open University are creating a set of learning resources based on an existing geology module: in particular the materials will form an introduction to mineralogy and petrology. The materials will be located on the OpenLearn website and can be used in conjunction with the UKVM teaching collections; they will also be linked to learning materials we house on these pages in the UKVM.

OpenScience Laboratory

While the virtual microscope can be used as a standalone tool, we’re also exploring new ways of using its digital content and interconnectedness as part of the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory projects.

One project will be the nQuire website, a system to allow you to create projects for your class that allow students to build their own hypotheses and test them using the virtual microscope. A Moon-rock-based demonstration system will be posted on nQuire in the near future.

Another project will be a shared microscope that allows several people to share a microscope activity.

Contact us

If you are using the virtual microscope to teach mineral and rock recognition skills let us know your experiences and we’ll post useful creative and innovative ideas on these pages. Just email us at .

Further reading

Guide to Thin Section Microscopy by Raith, Raase and Reinhardt (2012) is a complete and detailed guide to the study of minerals and rocks using a polarising microscope. It is freely available on the Mineralogical Society of America website.