GeoLab: Developing Digital Teaching and Learning Resources for the Virtual Microscope

Partner Institutions

Project Lead: University College Cork

Project Partners: Trinity College Dublin, National University of Ireland Galway, University College Dublin, The Open University.


The GeoLab project is designed to deliver teaching and learning resources to improve the development of essential petrological skills at the four national third level geoscience units in Ireland. The GeoLab project will build on existing affiliations between UCC, UCD, NUIG, TCD and the OU, and will see the collaborative development of a suite of shared teaching and learning resources agreed by all partners, with the ability of each partner to utilise the resources in their own teaching programmes.

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Primary Contact(s)


Dr Patrick Meere

University College Cork

Tel: +353-21-490-3000


Detailed Proposal

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 understanding 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 seeks 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 will also actively explore the potential application of the VM and teaching and learning resources to other scientific disciplines, especially the biological and physical sciences

This proposal directly addresses all the core elements of the National Forum’s “Vision For Digital Capacity In Higher Education (2015)”. In particular the following aspects of this vision for digital capacity in HE are addressed;

• Digital platforms, resources and tools are utilised to enhance teaching, learning and assessment, to connect teachers and students, and to increase the level and quality of learning-related communication
• Students will have access to a range of technological supports and resources to enhance their learning in a manner that enables them to become lifelong learners in the digital world
• Teachers will be fully enabled to use digital technologies/resources where appropriate, in order to enhance student learning within their disciplines
• Institutions collaborate with each other, and with the schools and further education sectors in order to build digital capacity for teaching and learning, with students as key partners in the process
• Institutions collaborate effectively at the international level in both research and practice relating to technology-enhanced learning.

In addition, an important part of the project will actively explore the potential application of the VMfES to other scientific disciplines, especially the biological and physical sciences (engineering, physics, astronomy, archaeology). The design of interactive and self-assessment exercises for this project will have direct applications to these other disciplines that utilise microscopy in their curricula. For example, the UCC Geoscience group resides in a School and shares curricula with biological and environmental scientists. This close relationship will facilitate the transfer of ideas and resources between these disciplines. Feedback from our colleagues indicates that they also have significant resource and implementation issues relating to the effective delivery of microscopy training in their curricula. In addition, the School of Natural Sciences in TCD is multidisciplinary in composition and very well placed to promote this inter-disciplinary approach. If successful we will liaise with institutions other than those within the core project group. We have already received strong interest and support from colleagues in the School of Engineering (Material Science) at the Waterford Institute of Technology. Finally the resources developed in this project will be open access, available and adaptable for other purposes, including incorporation into the distance learning curricula of the Open University in the UK

The project will be run by a project management team consisting of the project leads from each of the five partner institutions. A Project Assistant (PA) will implement the work packages under the guidance of the project management team.

Work Package 1 – Months 1-4: Ge-LAB management team (GMT) will appoint a PA. PA will travel between the Irish Geoscience Centres to catalogue teaching and learning strategies and resources relating to optical microscopy. Teaching and learning priorities for staff and students will be identified. The GMT will select high quality Irish teaching material from each unit’s teaching collections.
Project Management Team – Meeting 1 (Cork) – End Month 4

Work Package 2 – Month 5: PA will be hosted by the Open University and exposed to cutting edge practise and developments relating to the use of the UK VM. PA will oversee the digitising of selected Irish rock/mineral/fossil sections. Practicalities of the virtual microscope for distance learning will also be explored with current practitioners.
Staff Development – 1 Day Workshop, Open University – End Month 5

Work Package 3 – Month 6-12: Development of open access teaching resources (interactive exercises, rubrics and evaluations) incorporating existing and digitised Irish material.

Work package 4 – Months 13-15: – Training in use of new VM digital resources at all five partner units. Acquisition and analysis of student feedback.
Presentation of project results at Irish Geological Research Meeting – End month 14
Project Management Team – Meeting 2 (Dublin) – End Month 14

Work Package 5 – Months 15-18: Engagement with other science disciplines, in particular materials sciences and the biological sciences. Preparation of final project report.
Presentation of project results at EGU Meeting (2017), Vienna – End month 16
Staff Development – 1 Day Workshop, Cork – End Month 18