The Microscope

The FEI XL-30 ESEM FEG (right) and computer controls

The Bugscope Project enables live interactive control of an FEI XL-30 ESEM FEG microscope through a web browser. An ESEM is an Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope that is similar to, and often operates as, a traditional scanning electron microscope (SEM).

SEM is an exciting complement to the more well-known light microscopy that many experience in school. The most obvious benefit of SEM over light microscopy is that it can achieve more than 100 times greater magnification. The interaction of electrons with samples is vastly different than light, which means you don't see color, transparent objects are opaque, and surface features are rendered in incredible detail.

Compared to light microscopy, electron microscopes are larger, more complicated, require more maintenence and most of all are more expensive. This is just as true today as it was when Bugscope began more than 10 years ago. Electron microscopes are simply too costly for primary schools to acquire and operate, and are even scarse on smaller secondary-education campuses. Although great advances are being made in creating less-expensive table top-sized SEMs, most classrooms still have no way to experience electron microscopy first-hand.

Pollen grain viewed with the scanning electron microscope

The Project

Bugscope is an educational outreach project that was created in 1999 and continues with support from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Staff members in the Beckman Institute's multi-user microscopy suite donate their time to run up to 3 live Bugscope sessions a week. Schools apply online and pay nothing to participate. Once an application is accepted, we will arrange to schedule the date and time of the live interactive session.

Live Session Experience

A live Bugscope session typically runs about an hour and is scheduled to allow the teacher to participate during his/her class period. Teachers can choose to login from a single machine, connected to a projector, or allow students to login individually or in groups on their own computers. The live interface allows all participants to see the latest images coming from the microscope, ask questions via the built-in chat, and have the opportunity to control the microscope.

Insects mounted on the 1.5 inch sample stage

Teachers have the opportunity to send in insect specimens their classrooms collect to be viewed during their live session or we can use samples from what's available in our own collection. Teachers are encouraged to use their live session time to focus on exploring the samples and asking questions, opting to review and discuss the images "offline" afterword as the complete transcript and images are archived on the Bugscope website.

The live session experience is flexible and exciting: Parents can join their student's session, co-ops of homeschoolers can connect from their own homes, and kids home sick can even join their classrooms online!

Archived Sessions

All of the chat lines and images from a live connection are archived on the Bugscope website in a "members page" automatically created for each session. Not only do these provide a great way for classrooms to reflect on their session, but they can also be shared with parents or other classes unable to participate. Additionally, anyone can search the archives for images and chat records matching their interests.

Continue the tour: Learn About SEM