Explore Teaching Examples | Provide Feedback

Equipment for Indoor Geoscience Labs

A basic set of equipment and supplies

A good introductory geology lab needs some basic equipment so that students can work with a variety of materials. (Note that the materials such as rock and mineral samples, and maps of various kinds are covered in other pages in this module. The lists and explanations here are limited to more generally useful supplies). You can also find more information in the Starting Point Field Labs module; much basic equipment can serve double duty between indoor and field labs.

The Basics

  • Handlenses. Inexpensive 10x lenses work well for introductory classes. If you want to maintain a supply of handlenses in the lab, you can paint them a distinctive color and put them on lanyards to increase the chances that they will stay in the lab. Alternatively, you can have students buy their own. Students can be required to purchase one as part of the course materials. Lanyards that will hold a handlens (along with an ID card, room key and other campus essentials) are available at most campus bookstores - or you can bring a ball of coarse twine to lab on the first day and have students make their own. Triplet lenses are useful for advanced students.
  • Binocular microscopes. It's helpful to have one or two binocular microscopes to set up in a corner of the lab. These microscopes offer a larger field of view than a handlens. Microscopes with magnifications up to 10x aren't too expensive and are available through a number of suppliers. You might consider replacing the glass base with masonite, both to provide an opaque background and as a more sturdy alternative to something that scratches and breaks easily. The microscopes may come with built-in light sources, or lights may be sold separately.
  • Compasses. These must have a dip needle and should also have a bulls-eye level. These levels can be purchased inexpensively from a hardware supplier and glued to the case of plastic compasses. Consider requiring students to buy a compass as part of the course materials (cheaper than a textbook!), requiring them for geoscience majors, or presenting a compasses to each geoscience major when he or she declares. Most geoscience teachers we know prefer to use plastic compasses for introductory classes and most work, reserving the department's stash of Brunton and other high-end compasses for surveying and other uses where precision of less than a degree or so is essential. We also prefer compasses marked off in 360 degrees rather than quadrant compasses.
  • Acid bottles. Small plastic drop bottles can be filled with 10% HCl for testing rocks for carbonates.
  • Rock hammers. Students will seldom need rock hammers or picks for indoor labs, and in any case, you'll probably have a supply on hand for field labs. There's further discussion of basic field equipment in the Starting Point Field Labs module.
  • Small picks, toothbrushes, etc. It's useful to have a variety of small tools in the lab to clean rock specimens, pick out a few mineral grains, sort grains of sand, etc. Tweezers, small picks, old toothbrushes and other small tools, most available inexpensively at hardware or drugstores, will come in handy.
  • Pennies, nails, glass and other items for hardness determinations. (Penny = 3, steel knife blade = 5.5, glass = 5.5-6 on Mohs hardness scale). Hardness kits with mineral specimens (hardness 1-9) are available through many science education catalogs.
  • Rulers and protractors. For lab use, a set of sturdy wooden or plastic rulers and protractors work well. These can be marked or painted to help increase their longevity. Consider buying metal compasses as well, if you are asking students to draw circles around seismograph locations on a map, for instance.
  • Drawing pads and large colored markers for making drawings and for discussions. 20" by 30" newsprint drawing pads are widely available at art supply stores and through catalogs.
  • Graph Paper. For most introductory geoscience courses, we prefer to make copies of graph paper (perhaps from a book like "Making Graph Paper from Your Copier" - apparently out-of-print, so protect your copy carefully!) than to buy separate sheets or packages of graph paper. Graph paper can be downloaded from Mathematics Help Center: Graph Paper ( This site may be offline. ) or generated using their free software and printed.
  • Pencils and pens. Inexpensive, disposable mechanical pencils are very useful for all kinds of field and lab work. Either purchase a supply for a class or make each student responsible for buying their own pack. Depending on the activities you have planned, you may find it also useful to have a supply of colored pencils or have students buy a set for themselves.
  • Displays: maps and other materials. One of the most obvious differences between geoscience labs and those of other sciences is the rich array of visual material commonly on view in the geoscience labs. Like the chemists, geoscientists generally post an oversized version of the periodic table in their labs. In addition, you are likely to see a geologic map of the country where the school is located (for instance, North America or the United States of America). Posting student photos and connecting them with yarn to the home area of each student is a common way to show students visually the diverse geologic histories of their home areas. Geomorphic maps derived from digital elevation models can also be used. Other common display maps include a world map with plate boundaries, earthquakes and volcanoes; a geologic time scale; maps, photos and images of the planets (especially Mars, Venus and earth's Moon); full area maps covering areas of "student set" maps (see below); and others.

    Many introductory geology labs will also have displays of rocks and minerals. A particularly useful display uses an oversized version of a rock classification chart (for igneous rocks, for instance) with a hand sample of each rock type placed on the corresponding box. Oversized diagrams, for instance of Bowen's reaction series, will also be helpful. If you get the maps laminated, then you and the students can use erasable markers to annotate the map or diagram. For instance, a small group of students could use the oversize Bowen's reaction series diagram to illustrate the crystallization history of an igneous rock they have described.
  • Maps and map sets for student use. It's useful to have multiple copies of maps that students need for lab exercises. These might include 7 1/2' topographic maps of the area near the campus, geologic maps of areas where students will be making observations or drawing geologic cross-sections (with the full maps posted as displays) and others. You may want to laminate the maps that are used most frequently and that are taken into the field, both to protect the map and so that they can be drawn on. More information about map sources can be found on the working with maps page of this module.
  • Air photos and other images. As with maps, you'll probably want to have copies of air photos and satellite images that cover your campus and nearby area. (Though Google Earth is an excellent resource for images at a variety of scales, it's still helpful to have "paper" copies for students to work with). Also, consider laminating photos that get frequent use. There are several sources for stereo photographs of classic areas. "Loose" photographs are greatly preferable to books with stereo pairs because they can be shifted by students to match their own interocular distance. If you use stereo pairs of air photos, it's a good idea to invest in a few mirror stereoscopes for lab use. (It's very hard for novice users to see stereo with pocket stereoscopes). For more information about air photos and images, see the working with photos and images page of this module.
  • Computers and appropriate software. In addition to the geoscience-specific equipment in the introductory lab, it is also useful to have a number of computers (one for every three or four students) for student use. These computers should have standard software packages for writing text, making and using spreadsheets, making presentations, and accessing the internet. There are many specific packages for geoscience applications that you may also want to purchase and have students use. In addition, if the computers are connected to the campus network, students can save work in their own section of a campus server. (Another advantage to network connections is that you and your IT colleagues can load each computer with a standard set of programs and settings that the computers will revert to on each logout).
  • Visualization and audiovisual equipment in the lab. Standards in the world of classroom AV equipment change rapidly. At this writing (summer 2006), Kodak no longer produces slide carousels and computer projection of images, powerpoint presentations, etc. is the norm both for classrooms and labs(whether the images are from a website, stored on a server, or on a CD). Movies and other animated visualizations can be shown and projected from videocassettes or DVDs (remember to get speakers for the computer setup if you are using DVDs). The Cutting Edge website has more information on geoscience visualizations and a full complement of teaching activities is at the Teaching With Visualizations site at Starting Point. An interesting new visualization concept, one example of which is GEOWALL, allows instructors to project and rotate images such as geologic maps in three dimensions. If you are designing a lab space from scratch, the media services or instructional technology office at your campus will be useful resources. A full description of the options is beyond the scope of this website (and would probably be outdated very soon in any respect).