Using Microscopes In The Classroom

Get up close and personal with parts of a microscope lesson plans and activities for elementary students!

By Jennifer Sinsel


Microscope Lesson Plans

Microscopes are a vital piece of equipment in any science classroom, yet students often have difficulty remembering how to correctly use them. Because students often don’t have a clear understanding of each part and its function, they tend to make mistakes that may affect the quality of the data they’re able to obtain. Unfortunately, my students have been known to move the coarse adjustment knob when they should be moving the fine adjustment knob (which could result in a broken slide), and I have occasionally had them complain that their equipment isn’t working until I direct them to turn on the light source!

Depending upon the age and ability of your students, you might have access to a number of different types of microscopes. However, the two most common types are dissection microscopes and compound microscopes. Dissection microscopes, also known as stereo microscopes, allow 3-dimensional viewing and are usually used to get a better look at a larger specimen (such as an insect). Compound microscopes are most commonly used in classrooms because they have magnifications of 4x-400x and allow viewing of individual cells.  Compound microscopes have about 12 basic parts, which students should understand and be able to correctly use before beginning any lab that requires looking at objects or organisms up close.

When I introduce the parts of a compound microscope, I first give students a blank diagram like the one found at The Science Spot, which is found below. Each pair of students is given the name of one part on a note card, along with its location on the diagram. The team must then develop their own definition for the part based on their idea of its function. As each definition is shared with the whole class, discussion will ensue and I am able to guide students toward each part’s correct function. As a review, I like to use a version of “I Have, Who Has…” in which each student is given a note card with a phrase,  such as, “I have the coarse adjustment knob.  Who has the part that is used to support the microscope when carried?”  This game is very easy to develop, takes little prep, and keeps all students engaged (since they never know when their card will be called). In order to provide as many cards as I have students, I like to add cards such as, “I have the arm.  Who has the term for a set of directions in an experiment?”

Once your students understand the parts and functions of a compound microscope, they can move on to using it for engaging lab activities such as those detailed in the following lesson plans.

Parts of a Microscope Lesson Plans And Activities:

The Science Spot Students review the parts of a microscope, and then complete a worksheet about it.

Using Microscopes Students describe the differences between plant and animal cells.  They operate a microscope and examine cheek cells, onion cells, and potato cells.

Funky Fungus  Students discuss decomposition, bacteria, fungi and other microscopic organisms. They participate in an experiment to grow fungus on bread. As the fungus colonies grow, students observe them under a microscope to identify and locate fruiting structures. They record their observations and draw diagrams of the fungal colonies.

Snow Fossils  Students collect and observe falling snowflakes on black "snow catchers". They catch more snowflakes on lacquered glass slides, let them freeze dry, and then observe them through a microscope.

The Mystery of the Disappearing Cells  Students are given a mystery to solve based on their knowledge of different types of cells and the differences or similarities between animal and plant cells. Students use science process skills, such as observation and data analysis, to solve the mystery!

Discussion Question:

How do you teach students about the parts of a microscope? How do you use microscopes in the classroom?

Elementary Science Guide

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Jennifer Sinsel