CyberSEM is a project that aims to make a Scanning Electron Microscope available for remote use over the Internet. Trials have been carried out with schools to see if it can be used in support of the Science curriculum. Response has been very enthusiastic, but progress has been hampered by difficulties in passing the live feed from the microscope through institutional firewalls. Should we be able to overcome this problem, further developments in school applications will be pursued.

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CyberSEM image of radiolarians

About the Project

Microscopy can take the young into a microscopic world that can't be seen with the naked eye. When 6- or 7-year-olds see 'hundreds and thousands' through a simple light microscope, or an ant or a fly or sugar magnified 20-fold, their eyes light up with excitement. However, by the time they reach senior school, the things that they are taught about the microscopic world are often out of reach, either because the light microscopes available to them aren't up to the task, or because the topics of study are beyond the resolution of a normal school microscope. So lessons and assignments rely on textbook images, and the opportunity for hands-on discovery of the microscopic world, and the fascination that this can bring, is lost.

Realizing this, Professor David Cockayne, with Professor Angus Kirkland and Dr. Rudi Meyer, at the Department of Materials in Oxford University, have developed an interface that gives control of a dedicated scanning electron microscope (SEM) to schools over the Web. The interface is being refined by Mustie Rahman and a website has been developed by Alex Speller. The full-scale dedicated SEM is installed in Oxford, and is currently being road-tested over the Internet by a small number of schools, to ensure that it is both easy to use and robust. Modules of supporting documentation (including detailed lesson plans) have been written by David Hutton, who has years of experience teaching science in secondary schools. The remote operator can change the microscope magnification, move around the sample, focus and capture images directly onto his/her computer at a range of resolutions. The remote operator can choose between a set of samples, selected as most appropriate for student learning in the 14-18 age group. At present, most samples are focused on the biology curriculum and include leaves, rat skin, E. coli, sperm, bacteria, salmonella, rat kidney, radiolarians, rat trachea, rat lung and pollen. The sample range has broadened into the physics and technology curricula with samples of fibres, composites such as GRP, carbon fibre and kevlar, and nanotubes.

CyberSEM image of rat trachea

The project has been funded by the Department of Trade and Industry through its e-Science programme, and by electron microscope manufacturer JEOL. The team's aim is to have the SEM integrated into the curriculum as a resource for teachers. Consequently the supporting material and its presentation to schools are being designed for ease of use and with direct relevance to the curriculum. The increasing access that schools have to the Internet, the availability of low-cost, fast links (e.g. broadband) and improvements in image compression and access security make it certain that within this decade, access to remote instrumentation and experiments will increase. Professor Cockayne believes that this remote SEM is the first of many such initiatives.

(adapted from Physics Education vol. 40, no 2, March 2005)

Link to CyberSEM website

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