Teach the Earth > Undergraduate Research > Upper Division Strategies Collection > Optimizing Instrumentation

Optimizing Instrumentation in Support of Undergrad Research

By Jeane Pope, DePauw University, with contributions from David Gonzales, Fort Lewis College; Dave Mogk, Montana State University, Bozeman; and Jeff Ryan, University of South Florida

Why work with instruments as part of the undergraduate curriculum?

An Ion Chromotagraph in the Water Quality Lab at DePauw University
Working with modern instruments in classes or while conducting independent research projects provides valuable opportunities for undergraduate students. It is important for students to be able to learn about science while using the tools of science (DeHann, 2005). Collecting their own data provides students not only with relevant experience in the geosciences, but also an understandable feeling of pride and accomplishment. Information on this page provides examples of how different types of instruments can be used in support of geoscience education as well as different considerations a faculty member will want to think about when building exercises or projects as part of the undergraduate curriculum at his or her institution.

How do instruments improve student learning?

Studies of pedagogical effectiveness have shown that sophisticated instrumentation is useful for enhancing student learning of complex material.

Students using a gradiometer at Middlebury College

  • Students apply class information to real-world problems
  • Students become engaged by actively participation in the collection and analysis of data and can a gain a pride of ownership and satisfaction when becoming very familiar with the instrument
  • Students better understand the nature of doing science, including learning to appreciate the investment of time, money, patience required to obtain data
  • Students learn about uncertainty and user error
  • Students better understand the limits of data
  • Students become critical consumers and producers of data
  • Students gain professional skills and develop professional values

How can instruments be used in classes or independent projects?

There are numerous ways that different instruments can be used to support geoscience pedagogy. The Undergraduate Research Across the Curriculum pages give specific examples of instruments used in different disciplines. Here you can also find links to other sites to find more information about strategies for using instruments with undergraduates. Users of Undergraduate Research site are encouraged to visit the companion web page on Geochemical Instrumentation and Analysis which provide tutorials on Xray, electron beam, mass spectrometry, other spectroscopies, environmental sampling and analysis, biogeochemical methods and geobiology/genomics techniques.

How can you use instruments when you don't have them on your campus?

Remote Access to Instruments

A growing menu of research instruments can be operated remotely, and a number of analytical user facilities are offering remote operation as an option for using their instrumentation. The Florida Center for Analytical Electron Microscopy (FCAEM) offers remote operation access to both an electron microprobe and a scanning electron microscope, for use in both research and classroom applications.

  • Accessing these instruments requires relatively simple modes computational capabilities:
    • Two monitors are desirable for ease of use;
    • VNC Viewer terminal emulation software, available from RealVNC, Inc, at modest to no cost;
    • Internet bandwidth of 10 Mbit/sec to the desktop of the computers to be used to operate instruments, modest relative to standard Internet bandwidths maintained by most institutions.
    • Hourly use charges are relatively modest (see FCAEM rates for specifics) and are negotiable for short-duration activities like classroom demonstrations.

Instrument Registries

Significant resources have been invested by NSF in the purchase of a wide variety of analytical instrumentation. To optimize the use of these investments, we have developed instrument registries as a "matchmaking" service a) to help faculty and students gain access to modern instrumentation to support their research efforts, and b) to help lab managers identify clients to generate revenue to offset lab expenses (and instruments that are routinely used typically are in a better operational state). Lab managers are encouraged to list their instruments in this service. Potential users will find all pertinent information about lab facilities such as contact information, model of instruments, lab capabilities, sample preparation requirements, and terms of use.

How can you find funding to help pay for instrument time?

  • Consider asking for funds for instrument time as part of start-up packages. See the Preparing for an Academic Career advice on Negotiating for What you Need to be Successful
  • Look for special applications from your institutions (e.g. discretionary funds of the Department/Program Chair or Dean)
  • Include funding requests as part of research proposals (For more information about external funding, see Obtaining Grant Support)
  • Consider "trades"
    • Instrument time at your institution traded for instrument time at another institution
    • Instrument time in exchange for other types of research support (field work, lab analyses, etc.)
    • Lectures for analyses
    • Consider trading data that you generate at your institution for data analysis from another institution
    • Advertisement for potential grad students at host lab (gets students into lab and excited to work at the host school for grad education)
    • Swap labor for labor
  • Look for support from consortia
  • Build an endowment for long-term instrument use - e.g. Packard fund at the University of Michigan
  • Ask if the lab you are working with has special programs for undergraduate support
  • Have students write internal/external grants (Sigma Xi, Geological Society of America, Association for Women Geologists)
  • Funding sources; particularly undergraduate

What are the advantages and drawbacks of using instruments with students?

Faculty members who are considering using sophisticated instruments with undergraduate students should carefully weigh the benefits to students and for their own research program against the costs of doing so. Although instruments, especially automated instruments, can greatly speed up the data collection process, care should be taken to make sure that students understand how the instrument works. Using instruments as "black boxes" does little to improve student learning. For example, see Geochemical Instrumentation and Analysis tutorials as a place to start in training students in the use of these techniques. Furthermore, researchers should be aware that as the chief scientist, they have the final responsibility for assuring the quality of the data that are generated by students. Other advantages and drawbacks of using instruments when working with undergraduates include:

undergraduate students from Fort Lewis College using the LA ICP-MS to measure trace and REE in rocks of the Navajo volcanic field at the U.S.G.S Federal Center in Denver in Alan Koenig's lab

  • Teaches students how to collect and analyze data
  • Allows faculty members to model the professional standards and expectations of a research scientist.
  • Excellent way to collect data for your research program


  • Can be very time consuming; it often takes much longer to teach students how to use an instrument and collect quality data than it does to run the analyses oneself
  • Buying and using instruments can be very expensive
  • Instrument Support
    • Students can be hard on instruments
    • Instruments can be hard to maintain

References and Pedagogical Studies

An extensive bibliography has been compiled for the Elements Magazine volume on Teaching Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry; many of these references describe use of analytical instrumentation in a variety of geoscience courses.

This site also hosts a variety of case studies, many of which involve using instrumentation with undergraduate students.
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