Teaching resources

Advice and links for teachers and students


Teaching the skills of recognising, identifying and classifying minerals in thin sections typically 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 a global pandemic renders communal lab classes unsafe. 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.

But, 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 supplement and support conventional teaching of petrology skills, by releasing the students (and staff!) from the confines of the laboratory.

Several collections on the Virtual Microscope website represent teaching collections, either assembled by the Virtual Microscope team for that purpose or contributed by collaborating universities – some of them to facilitate online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. These collections include:

  • The United Kingdom Virtual Microscope (UKVM)
  • Geolab: Irish University Rocks
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Leicester
  • OU Module Rocks
  • University of Plymouth
  • University of Portsmouth

We encourage you to experiment with the Virtual Microscope for teaching: use the location and measure features, share the microscope views with a direct link from the share button and even embed views in your own institution’s virtual learning environment. The Virtual Microscope works just as well with a PC, tablet or mobile 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 always looking to expand the UKVM and other collections, so we’re open to suggestions and ideas. Just email us at .

Related projects


The Open University have created an introduction to mineralogy and petrology as a free course on the OpenLearn website which can be used in conjunction with the Virtual Microscope teaching collections.

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.

One way is the nQuire website, which provides a framework for you to create projects for your class that allow students to build their own hypotheses and test them using the Virtual Microscope. You could also use screen-sharing on a range of online apps so that several people can share a microscope activity.

Contact us

If you are using the Virtual Microscope to teach mineral and rock recognition skills, please 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 Open Access Publications section of the Mineralogical Society of America website, along with several other interesting publications.