Geology rocks under a virtual microscope

The GEOL242 lab goes online with a kaleidoscopic new interactive learning experience.

A thin section of garnet schist under the microscope.

If we were to tell you that we study Geology, you’d probably imagine that we spend most of our time looking at boring grey rocks. While you’d be totally right, did know that these boring grey rocks turn into a kaleidoscope of colour once they meet a microscope?

The students of UC’s Rocks, Minerals and Ores course, GEOL242, began their iridescent journey in February this year. Many of them had never seen a rock under a microscope before. While one might be tempted to think that with all those bright colours and shiny crystals they saw, it’d be all fun and games; students soon learn that every piece of this beautiful microscopic world tells the story of how this dull grey rock formed, holding clues to processes that happened millions of years ago.


Sriparna has a PhD in Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, and I am currently working towards my Masters in Geology. We both have a deep appreciation for the beauty of this microscopic world. Once the lockdown in New Zealand was beginning to become a reality, we knew that students would soon be barred from access to the samples and equipment kept at Uni. Properly learning how to identify minerals and the rocks they live in is an important part of being a geologist, and we felt that leaving students without access to these samples was not an option.

Meetings were held, and we set out together with the help of technician Jonathan Davidson and lecturers Ben Kennedy and Alex Nichols to design and create the Virtual Microscope/Demonstrator so we could bring the rocks to the students, instead of having to bring the students to the rocks.

Blue schist

The Virtual Microscope part of this project combines high resolution 3D images of the rock samples and microscope slides of thin rock sections, along with photos and videos. Uploaded to LEARN (UC’s learning management system), these resources recreate the weekly lab sessions students attended before lockdown.

These new online labs are then sprinkled with a more personal touch by the lecturers and demonstrators to guide students on a “tour” of the rock samples and their microscopic counterparts. This guided tour takes students to important features of the rock and microscope slide, and asks them to interpret what they see. This Demonstrator side of the project helps students look back in time to tell us the story of how this dull grey rock came to be.

Since this virtual tool has proven invaluable throughout the lockdown, it is likely to be implemented into future years of the GEOL242 course alongside the current in-person labs. It is our hope that the Virtual Microscope/Demonstrator will augment the learning experience and allow a more interactive and visual journey through the course for a wide range of students.

Big thanks to all involved!

Otago schist

Kamen Engel is a Masters student in Te Kura Aronukurangi | School of Earth & Environment at the University of Canterbury. His background is in Geology, Japanese and Antarctic Studies. His Masters project is currently focussed on what aspects of this virtual microscope has had positive influences on the students of GEOL242.
Follow Kamen on his Instagram: @kamenengel

Sriparna Saha is a PhD student in Te Kura Aronukurangi | School of Earth & Environment at the University of Canterbury. Her background consists of a PhD in Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, and she is currently working towards her PhD in GeoEducation.
Follow Sriparna on her Instagram: @nightwanderer_20

Explore some of GEOL242’s stunning thin rock sections under the microscope here.