Remote Access to the Scanning Electron Microscope


scanning electron microscope image of a Drosophila fly head

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Steven Barlow
Electron Microscope Facility
(619) 594-4523

scanning electron microscope image of a zircon crytal

All you need is a Mac or PC, the free program CU-SeeMe, and a direct Internet connection!


The scanning electron microscope enables students to see the surface details of objects at magnifications from 50x to 10,000x, a range much larger than that of a light microscope. However, the high cost of these microscopes ($50,000-$500,000) generally precludes access by elementary and high school students, since most K-12 schools cannot afford to own and run such an instrument. Furthermore, the instruments are often located in very small laboratory rooms, limiting severely the size of classes that can visit the laboratory site.


Cable TV or Internet connections make it possible to bring live images from the SDSU scanning electron microscope directly into the classroom, thereby greatly enlarging the pool of students for whom access to the instrument was previously not feasible or cost effective. Students, working with lesson plans designed in conjunction with their schoolteachers, would send their own samples to the Electron Microscope Facility. At a predetermined time, the samples would be loaded into the microscope, and live images would be sent by two way interactive link to the remote classroom. For example, students would say, "Let's look at sample 7, salt and pepper, and compare their shape and structure". On screen, the salt and pepper would appear. In this way, students would feel they were operating the microscope and examining their own samples. The image samples appear on the remote computer screen just as they would on the microscope. The sample magnification, focus etc. would be done at the direction of the K-12 students via audio link to the EM Facility. A fixed camera in the room can broadcast an image of the Facility operator so that students could interact with a scientist when they weren't viewing samples on the SEM. The session can be videotaped for future viewing, and high resolution images can be stored on our computer for subsequent downloading by students. The EM Facility can advise the remote classroom students where to go to seek answers to their questions, thereby adding another dimension to the teaching possibilities this remote feed would provide.

In summary, there are several benefits to be gained from this remote access:

1.) Students would be able to view their own samples on the scanning electron microscope. This would greatly increase the availability of the microscope to K-12 students.

2.) Teacher education programs can use this live linkage as part of their curriculum for training future science teachers.

3.) Undergraduates here at State who have completed the SEM class and laboratory (Biology 555,556) can gain additional proficiency running the electron microscope for the remote classroom.

4.) These SDSU undergraduates will be exposed to the joys, excitement and occasional frustrations of teaching. Participating in this outreach program will give undergraduate students considering a career in teaching some actual experience interacting with K-12 students.

5.) Several students here at State have started working on research projects as a result of seeing images on the scanning electron microscope. This microscope and its images demonstrates to students that science doesn't have to be dull, or limited to pages in a textbook.

6.) K-12 students who see undergraduates running the scanning electron microscope will learn by example that the SEM is not an intimidating high technology instrument whose use is limited to highly trained individuals. I have trained high school students to use the electron microscope and they were thrilled! These excited students bring their friends and I get more students interested in pursuing projects that involve these tools.

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