Project ExCEL (Extended Classroom for Enhanced Learning) brings the capabilities of scanning electron microscopy (SEM) into classrooms. University and industry personnel, working together, have developed a web-based interface to allow schools to control a modern SEM. The interface allows a user control of the operating parameters of the microscope, stage movement, and chemical analysis. Such total control is not available on any other system. Since Iowa State University (ISU) pioneered the idea of remote SEM for education, researchers have learned that providing teachers access to sophisticated equipment does not ensure that it will be used. Teachers are busy, and structured curriculums are not conducive for incorporating the SEM into classes. A lack of teacher knowledge of SEMs also discourages their use. To overcome these problems, College of Engineering and College of Education faculty are working together to train future teachers in the SEM. The web-based SEM is being used in education courses, and selected students (who receive additional training) prepare lesson plans and present their work to the class. In-service teachers receive instruction in the web-based SEM through workshops. By using this integrated approach, all science teachers in Iowa will eventually gain the confidence to use the SEM in their classrooms.
Since its introduction into the university environment in the early 1960s, the scanning electron microscope has been viewed as essential scientific equipment with nearly unlimited applications for a wide variety of scientific fields. Whether students are studying biology, geology, botany, or any of the numerous engineering disciplines, the SEM can be a valuable tool in the classroom. With its ability to deliver crisp images with the appearance of three-dimensions at high magnifications, the SEM brought the microscopic world to the student in a way never before possible. Subsequent developments in computers and the energy dispersive spectrometer (EDS) have expanded the usefulness of the SEM by allowing rapid qualitative chemical analyses to be conducted with the touch of a button. However, while SEM development forged ahead, training in the use of the SEM remained stagnant. Being a single user instrument, SEM education typically consisted of either one or a few students standing in a dark room looking over the shoulder of an instructor while that person manipulated the controls of the instrument. This inefficient approach to SEM instruction remained virtually unchanged for nearly 30 years.
In the early 1990's, the Materials Science and Engineering Department at ISU received NSF funding to develop new instructional methods for the SEM. Using a computer-based interface, an existing SEM was modified to allow control of the instrument from a series of remote workstations [1, 2]. This laboratory allowed a large number of students to simultaneously view the image using a series of TV monitors and a large-screen projector. A local area network gave students access to the operation of the microscope. Once it was shown that control could be given to remote workstations located near the SEM, the logical extension was to remotely view the image and control the microscope from locations a greater distance from the microscope. Experiments and demonstrations were conducted in which the microscope was operated by individuals removed from the ISU campus using modems and the internet. The success of this classroom was widely disseminated and the rapid development of remote control, computer-based microscopes began. Within a short time, most microscope companies were advertising remote control features, and ISU and several sites around the country had established laboratories whereby individuals, companies, and K-12 schools could access and operate an SEM using a computer via the internet [3, 4]. With the rise in popularity of the internet, the number of SEM sites has …