Bugscope Infrastructure

The unique opportunity that Bugscope provides to students and teachers is possible through a supporting infrastructure of people and technology. Although this is normally available to scientists, it is rarely offered to K-12 classrooms (Potter, et al., 1999).

An example of how a classroom participates using the Bugscope infrastructure follows:

A teacher interested in the project submits via the Bugscope web site a short application with information about herself, her school, and the computer facilities available to her students. Included within the application is a brief project proposal where the teacher describes her interest in Bugscope and specific classroom project plans to use it.

The project team reviews the teacher's application, which is assigned a proposal number. After the teacher application is selected for participation, a time is scheduled for her students to remotely use the microscope for their scientific investigations. Next, the teacher mails an insect specimen. The project's operation team prepares the specimen sent by the teacher and then places it into viewing chamber in the microscope before the session. Prior to the session, the teacher completes an online background form with additional information, such as her experience with microscopy and computers.

Before starting to access the microscope using the username and password assigned to her, the teacher reviews the Help page on the web site to determine the computer/browser requirements for running the microscope. The teacher then tests her computer/browser setup using a simulator (i.e., Bugscope setup tester program) to verify that her setup is capable of running the microscope.

During the teacher's session, the operations team is available to interact with her and her students through a chat program. The images acquired during the session are automatically archived in a database for use by the teacher and her students, who can retrieve the images at any time using their project proposal number.

After the session, the teacher completes an online form to provide feedback about the session. Later, teacher also completes another online form to submit a summary report of her classroom project.

People behind Bugscope

The Bugscope project has no full-time staff. The project is a collaboration of over a dozen faculty, staff, and students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University Laboratory High School.11 The project team expertise includes biology, electron microscopy, entomology, imaging, instructional design, remote scientific instrumentation, software engineering, visualization, and web design and development. A critical subgroup of the project is the operations team that supports remote classrooms.

Technology behind Bugscope

There are three components of the technology infrastructure: an environmental scanning electron microscope, the interactive remote microscopy application (irma) software to access and control the microscope (Grosser and Kisseberth, 1999), and the project web site, with a variety of resources for the classrooms.12 A session web page for each classroom allows students and teachers to utilize the supporting infrastructure of people and technology for their project.

Environmental scanning electron microscope

Most optical microscopes (what are commonly termed "light microscopes" or "dissecting microscopes") that are available in schools today use a light source to illuminate specimens that are magnified using glass lenses. The highest magnification attainable with any light microscope is approximately 1000x. The highest magnification capability of most classroom light microscopes is more likely to be in the range of 400 to 600x. The typical dissecting microscope magnifies to about 20x. Light microscopes were not intended for three-dimensional imaging, and dissecting microscopes were designed for it but have limited magnification capabilities. In addition, the typical K-12 classroom microscope rarely provides the ability to save an image of the chosen feature or specimen. The environmental scanning electron microscope is capable of imaging at much higher magnification, and provides much better resolution and depth of field than any light microscope.13 The ESEM has a magnification range from about 17x to over 500,000x.14 For this project, however, the highest magnification available to students is less than 30,000x. Scientists at the university from several disciplines, such as biology, geology, and materials science, use the ESEM for their research.

Interactive remote microscopy application software

The irma software is a web based system for remote access and control of the microscope. The main components of the irma software are the image observer and the scope controller (see Figure 2).15 The observer automatically displays the current image that has been acquired by the microscope. Although the observer is primarily a passive application, it has a few controls that students can manipulate. For example, a student can classify an image as a high quality image by clicking on the 'Mark Image' button. The controller provides the capability to manipulate parameters of the microscope, such as magnification, focus, and contrast, remotely. The irma software also allows several classrooms to simultaneously and independently access and control the microscope. Thus, there can be any number of observers and several controllers active at one time.

Figure 2. Image Observer and Scope Controller.

Bugscope web site

The Bugscope project web site has been designed to provide teachers (and their students) easy access to a variety of resources.16 Among these are the teacher application, teacher information, classroom session information, and image database.

Teacher application. Teachers interested in participating in the project submit their applications online with information about themselves, their school, and computer facilities available to them.17 A critical component of the application is the project proposal where the teachers describe their interest in Bugscope and specific classroom project plans.18

Teacher information. A resource web page has been developed to assist teachers in submitting their applications, as well as in planning their classroom sessions. This page includes information related to arthropod-related activities and curricular materials, specimen preparation guidelines, proposal guidelines, and model proposals for different grade levels.

Classroom session information

Figure 3. Session information for a classroom (from Tennessee).

To give a scheduled classroom access and control of the microscope, a web page specific to their session is created (see Figure 3). The session page provides students and teachers a straightforward approach to running the microscope using the controller and the observer. A chat program may also be initiated to allow for communication between the classroom and the operations team. The session page lists preset stage and magnification positions on the specimen (e.g., praying mantis) submitted by a classroom from Tennessee, for instance. The presets, which are chosen by the operations team, have proven to be helpful to students at all levels in getting started with their sessions. A preset is intended to help students explore a particular feature of their insect specimen. Teachers often request preset features that they would like their students to study or start with. The session page also provides pointers to appropriate help documentation.


Figure 4. Database interface.

All of the images acquired by the classrooms are automatically stored in a database. These images are immediately accessible to the classrooms, as well as to anyone interested in the sessions, through the database interface (see Figure 4). The images are stored with associated acquisition parameters, such as magnification, along with any annotations or comments made by the students and teachers about their acquired images.

In order to achieve scalability and sustainability for the Bugscope project, it has been necessary to automate many project administration tasks, such as the teacher application review. For example, once a teacher submits an online application through the web site, a proposal number (e.g., 1999-016) is automatically assigned to the application. The application is immediately archived into a database on the web site and made available to the project team for critique. A team member can also review the critiques submitted by others for a given application. Teacher applications, especially the project proposals, are rated on a 5-point Likert scale in terms of their overall quality, scientific interest, innovation, suitable grade level, and uniqueness. In addition, a team member critiquing applications can also write comments for a given application. The critiques by team members on an application are automatically synthesized, and the results are immediately available. Without such automation capabilities, it would be difficult to sustain the project in the long term.

11 The first Bugscope project meeting was held on January 11, 1999. The infrastructure of people and technology for supporting Bugscope was organized at this meeting.

12 The microscope was delivered to the university on January 6, 1999, and it was installed on January 15. The project web site was accessible starting January 25. The first teacher application was received on January 31 from a school in Nashville, Tennessee. The irma software, specifically developed for the project, tested the remote access and control of the microscope on March 1. The first classroom session occurred on March 12 from a high school in Champaign.

13 The impact of electron microscopy on biological sciences has been documented (e.g., Rasmussen, 1997).

14 The ESEM used by the Bugscope project is manufactured by the FEI Company. The ESEM model is the field emission Philips XL30, and costs about $600,000.00.

15 Both the observer and the controller are written in Java programming language to allow for multiple platform capability. For classrooms with computers that cannot use the irma software for a variety of reasons, such as firewall or web filtering software, an alternative Common Gateway Interface (CGI) version is made available.

16 The web site gets an average of over 200 access requests per day. There have been over 70,000 such requests during the first year of the project.

17 Over 100 teacher applications have been received from across the nation since the project started.

18 Teachers also submit information about their local newspaper, which is later contacted by a publicist to generate an interest within the community about the project.