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Your Guide to Choosing the Best Microscope for Students

Are you looking to outfit your high school or university laboratory with the best microscope, but you aren’t sure what to get? You might be struggling to choose between types of microscopes, and which are best for students. It’s an important decision, and since a good microscope can be costly, an expensive one.

This guide is here to help you decide which microscope to get for school, with plenty of crucial information about them. Read on to find out!

How Do You Choose the Best Microscope for Students?

What type of microscope should you get? There are quite a few to choose from. Below is a short overview of which types of microscopes are perfect for school use.

1. Compound Light Microscope

These microscopes come with one or two eyepieces (monocular or binocular). They work by generating light below the subject and viewing it from above. This is known as bright field illumination. Typically, compound light microscopes have rotating objective lenses that multiply the magnifying power of the eyepiece. The most common are 40x, 100x, and 400x magnification. Sometimes, you’ll find 1000x.

It is a useful feature to have if your students will use the microscope for different types of studies. For example, when students are studying biological cells or bacterial organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is the most common type of microscope for biology labs.

Key considerations:

  • Variable magnification, up to 1000x.
  • Useful for specimens that cannot be seen with the naked eye and that absorb light, but does not work with solid objects.
  • Comes in monocular or binocular variants.
  • Requires preparation of specimens before use, using dyes or oils.

2. Stereo Microscope

A stereo microscope creates the effect of depth by using a single lens combined with two eyepieces. They have lower power than compound light microscopes and are commonly used in dissection, electronics, and other solid objects. These microscopes come with fixed or variable zoom but generally provide around 10x to 40x magnification.

  • Comes in two design groups, the Greenough design, and the Common Main Objective design.
  • Has a variety of mountings, including fixed, turret, and zoom. These tell you if the microscope can change magnification, and zoom in and out of the current magnification level.
  • Cannot observe objects invisible to the naked eye. However, it’s great for dissection, electronics, or other tasks requiring a greater level of detail in solid objects. This means you don’t have to prepare specimens before viewing.

3. Digital Microscope

These microscopes function like a compound light microscope but are equipped with digital displays. This allows for viewing a specimen without looking through the lenses.

A digital microscope for school creates a shared learning environment - most models allow the transfer of images to other devices through a tablet. This means students can easily send slides to a teacher or share them with the rest of the class through an interactive whiteboard.

  • Convenient for transmitting images of specimens to other devices.
  • Comfortable to use - students can view moving images for hours without leaning over the view piece. They can also view from a sitting position.
  • Can be expensive, especially with higher-end models.
  • Slides require preparation before viewing.
  • A suitable microscope for high school students. 

4. USB Computer Microscope

These low-powered scopes consist of one lens attached to a USB port which can plug directly into a computer, on which the image can be viewed.

  • Low magnification that tops out around 200-250x limits what sorts of specimens you can view.
  • Low cost compared to other microscopes.
  • Specimens do not need to be prepared with dye or oil, as with compound light microscopes.

5. Electron Microscope

This powerful type of microscope focuses beams of energized electrons onto objects to allow them to be viewed at a nano level. They are generally large, bulky, require specialist training to use, and are expensive.

They produce extremely high-quality images of the surface and inside of cells. This quality cannot be obtained with a device that uses beams of light to illuminate specimens. The specimen tray on an electron microscope is in a vacuum. However, it cannot be used to study living cells as with a compound microscope.

  • Powerful magnification, up to 1000000x, allows for viewing objects on the nanoscale.
  • The nature of electron microscopes means they are unsuitable for anything below a college or university level, as they require specialist technicians to maintain and operate.
  • Some high end models can reach millions of dollars. As a result, a university may only have one electron microscope. On top of the purchase price, they are expensive to maintain.

Which Type is Best for School Use?

There are a few factors to consider when purchasing a microscope for a student, or a beginner microscopist:

1. What is it being used for?

It depends on the sort of samples that students study. Solid objects that do not allow light to pass through them cannot be studied with compound light microscopes. 

Stereo microscopes allow for this function. They do not have the magnification power to view objects invisible to the naked eye, and so you cannot use them to view cells or bacteria.

  • Compound light microscopes are good for high magnification of samples invisible to the naked eye. Examples include mold, bacteria, skin cells, tissue, and plant sections, usually while using stained samples on a glass slide.
  • Stereo microscopes are good for dissections and studying fossils, rocks, minerals, and metals in 3D detail.
  • For school use, digital microscopes provide ease of viewing. They allow for sharing images around the classroom and are ergonomic.

2. Modularity

Some higher-end microscopes have the added function of modular stands. This allows parts to be added or removed. Carefully consider the study direction students may take, and their education level. 

  • More modularity means more functions but makes it more complex to use – it’s not the best microscope for beginners.
  • A less complex one requires less setup time. As a result, teachers can spend more time on the lesson, instead of setting up or fixing students’ equipment.
  • A simple microscope is best for beginner students. You do not want to overwhelm them with complex equipment from the start.
  • Monocular eyepieces do not have to be adjusted for the individual depth perception of each student. This means they are useful if used by one student after another.  
  • Binocular eyepieces can be adjusted for an individuals’ depth perception, but this must be done with every new user. If you have a lot of students using one microscope, this can be time consuming.

3. Ruggedness

Most students recognize that a microscope is a costly piece of equipment. However, there are bound to be accidents and careless handling of apparatus. Selecting a microscope that can withstand everyday sustained use is a key consideration when browsing a microscope for school. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Fixed eyepieces, objectives, and attached stage clips can prevent the loss of necessary parts.
  • Lockable observation heads help prevent removal and potential damage.
  • Focus lock features prevent students from over-focusing and pressing the objective into the sample.
  • LED diodes are longer lasting than halogen light sources, meaning less expense in the long run.

4. Cost

Money is another key factor to consider. Wanting the best for students is imperative but breaking your budget with a few high-end microscopes is not the most cost-effective way to equip a lab. 

Selecting a mid-range option will allow you to purchase in bulk and ensure that every student has access to the equipment they need.

  • A digital microscope may be pricey. However, it’s best not to discount the convenience of easily sharing images of slides - it can greatly streamline classroom learning.
  • Digital microscopes can allow students to incorporate images taken from the classroom into reports and other assignments.
  • Some wholesalers may provide discounts for bulk buying. It’s worth checking out local corporations and microscopy societies to get funding if your school authority cannot do so.

What is the Importance of a Microscope?

Microscopes allow us to study the world beyond the naked eye and have an enormous role in the biological and medical sciences. For students, the use of a microscope encourages discovery learning. It also trains them to think more about the natural world around them:

1. Students can learn about the properties of light

Microscopes can help students learn about light properties, and how they magnify images of small objects using light. It helps them learn the difference between the reflection, absorption, or transmission of light interacting with materials.

2. Natural processes of cells and other microorganisms

The ability to see the structure of cells and microorganisms in action provides students with a great opportunity to learn how they work. 

Students can identify parts of cells such as the nucleus, cytoplasm, organelles, and cell membrane. Microorganisms can be studied as they move, which provides an opportunity to study living creatures practically - instead of theoretically.

3. Microscopes provide hands-on learning

Microscopes are fun to use and provide a practical element to classroom learning. Instead of rote study of textbooks (known as ‘passive’ learning), students can participate in active learning. This stimulates them and aids in the retention of knowledge.

They are much more likely to remember a fun lesson in which they studied cell structure in action, compared to labeling the different parts of a cell from a book. Hands-on learning also boosts engagement.

It’s a great, practical opportunity to help them learn about optics. They will understand how lenses function, combined with a light source, to magnify objects.

4. Increases students’ curiosity about the natural world

If students have a natural curiosity, the opportunity to study organisms invisible to the naked eye will get them interested in the natural world. They will start to think about the variety of life that is happening around them, which they cannot see.

5. Practical learning can encourage students to become scientists

The practical work of the laboratory is an incentive to go further in science. What begins with the use of microscopes in the classroom can encourage and inspire students to begin a career in STEM subjects.

6. Students can learn individually or in groups 

Microscopes are a great way for students to work together on group projects. (Digital microscopes are a great way to do this, but non-digital models also work).

It allows them to collaborate and compare their findings. They can work equally well using a microscope alone, as part of a report or project.

7. Better Retention

Drawing conclusions from visual information can last longer than passive, rote learning of facts.

Students more easily retain the information acquired through active, compared to passive learning. Associating learning with practical activities or positive experiences means they will recall information easier than learning from a textbook.

A microscope can also aid in learning by discovery. Giving students the equipment and materials to experiment with generates a learning experience that aids in education.

8. Activates the Seeking System

The seeking system is a theory in neuroscience. When applied to education, it explains how new experiences improve a child or adolescent’s interest in learning.

It’s important for students who have difficulty engaging in the classroom, such as those with ADHD.

Using microscopes is a great way to engage them and activate this system. This not only helps them at school - it helps in life. 

What Can Students Study Under a Microscope?

It’s exciting to get specimens under a lens and study them - especially for students who have never used a microscope.

They can view everyday objects (if you are using a stereo microscope), such as money or toilet paper. Usually, it’s much more productive to find specimens students can ‘uncover’ under the microscope.

Here are some examples of fun things to try:

1. Cheek Cells

  • The cells on the inside of your cheek form a protective membrane lining the mouth. Since it’s a ‘high traffic’ area, they regularly shed, so they’re easy to obtain for specimens.
  • Students can swipe the inside of the mouth using a sterile cotton swab, then stain the sample with Methylene Blue. After this, they can study the cells on the sample. They can identify the cell membrane, organelles, nucleus, and cytoplasm.
  • It’s an easy and fun way to learn about the structure and function of cells. The origin of the specimen adds a personal touch to the experiment!

 2. Onion Skin

  • The outside layer of an onion contains protective epidermal cells. These cells prevent viruses and fungi from harming the inner plant tissue. It’s easy to peel off and is transparent. This means it works well under a microscope light.
  • Onion cells are organized and uniform in shape. This is because they have a cell wall that is not present in animal and human cells. Students can learn about cellulose and the differences between species’ cellular structure.
  • Onions are easy to get in bulk at cheap prices, making this a cost-effective experiment. 

3. Yeast Cells

  • These oval shaped, single celled fungi are present in most fermented food and therefore, are easy to obtain.
  • Students can learn about the growth of cultures by observing yeast cell division. You can set it up as a longer-term experiment. This can help them plan and take charge of their own project.
  • Studying yeast teaches students about the microorganisms present in foods they consume such as bread, and their importance to human life.

4. Mold

  • You can find mold fungi on rotten food such as fruits, vegetables, or bread. 
  • Students can explore types of molds and their properties, and how spores function.
  • They can learn how certain types of molds have helped humans produce valuable medicines, such as Penicillin.

5. Eggshell Membrane

  • The tough inside of an eggshell is made of keratin and defends against bacteria. Under a microscope, it looks the same as human hair.
  • Students can learn about the similarities between biological structures – for example, keratin is in eggshells and human hair.
  • Eggs are low cost and easy to get hold of – just mind the mess.

 6. Water Bear

  • These tiny micro-animals (officially named Tardigrades) can be found on mosses, lichens, or coastal soils and sediments.
  • They are incredibly resilient and can survive in various environments. This includes high and low pressure, extreme temperatures, and outer space. They are resistant to radiation, dehydration, and starvation.
  • This makes them a fascinating object of study. They can learn about the biological processes of micro-animals and the effects of environmental factors on creatures and humans. They also get to see the variety of life beyond the human eye!
  • They are common in lichen and mosses which are easy to obtain. They can be observed under lower power microscopes. This makes them perfect for classroom study.

7. Pond Water Microorganisms

  • Protozoa and Protophyta microorganisms are the main types of pond life. They range from tiny algae only visible under scopes, to large tracts of kelp, many feet in length.
  • Since many algae have chloroplasts, they use photosynthesis for food. Studying algae is a great practical way of learning about photosynthesis.
  • Also present in pond water are a variety of microorganisms such as Rotifers, Nematodes, and Planarians. Students can learn about their structures and roles in the natural environment.
  • It’s easy to get a good sample of water with microorganisms - you just need a concave slide and a pond.

8. Pollen

  • Pollen is produced by the stamens of flowering plants. Insects carry it from plant to plant. It’s composed of two cells within a hard outer shell.
  • In the process of studying pollen, students can learn about pollination, flower anatomy, and the connections between plant and animal life.
  • It’s easy to obtain. This part can be incorporated into a field trip. Just use a Q-tip to collect pollen grains on a slide, add a drop of water and add a coverslip.

9. Sugar, Salt and Pepper

  • Using everyday household objects like sugar, salt, and pepper can teach students about the structure of materials around them - especially consumables.
  • Placing different sorts of salt, sugar, or pepper under the microscope can highlight their varying properties. Students will be surprised when the salt they eat looks like an asteroid up close!
  • Easy to obtain in bulk, and at little cost – this experiment will not break the bank.

10. Soap Foam

  • You can mix detergent or soap with water and put the foam under a microscope. This results in a kaleidoscope of movement. It brings different results, depending on the proportion of soap to water.
  • Students can study how chemical reactions occur and see the results.

11. Ice 

The structure of ice crystals makes this a great item to observe. 

  • Start simple, using ice cubes. Students can study the different formations ice takes. 
  • More advanced students can study ice cores. This will show how its structure changes as it thickens. 

You might inspire the next generation of glaciologists. 

12. Snowflakes

Students can marvel at the uniqueness of every flake. To collect snow without it melting, you need clear nail polish and a slide. 

  • Paint a layer of polish onto the slide. 
  • If it’s snowing, hold the slide out and collect falling flakes. 
  • If not, pick up fallen snow and place it on the slide.

The snowflake leaves an impression in the polish. This lets you view its formation, no matter the indoor temperature. 

13. Insect Wings

Studying insect wings brings interesting insights into aerodynamics. They’re made of a thin membrane, which is covered with hair and contains blood vessels. 

You can buy prepared insect wing microscope slides. This lets you study a wider range of species, compared to seeing what dead insects you can find outside. You also don’t have to consider hygiene if you buy slides.  

Wrapping Up

You’ve explored the best microscope for different purposes in the lab - compound light, stereo, digital, and USB. Equipped with pros and cons of each type of microscope, you can be confident about your next classroom addition. 

Microscopes are not just pieces of equipment - they are a way of getting kids interested in learning and science through hands-on experience. Have a look here at a great range of microscopes your students will love!