May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

The “e” Alternative

Posted: Friday, October 1st, 2010

by Rick Pomeroy

This is a simple scenario-type lab that addresses the same concepts and processes that the traditional “e” microscope lab addresses but in a way that engages students in using evidence to solve a simple problem.  (A copy of the traditional lab is included at the bottom for your comparison.)  This activity is appropriate for grades 7-10, but can be adapted to any grade.  Providing the students with a purpose for looking at the print and writing samples under the microscope promotes critical thinking and demonstrates the ways that scientific tools can be used to answer real-world questions.  The level of description given by students of what they see when looking at the samples gives written context to the drawings that they are producing.  Emphasize that students should describe the texture of the paper as well as the way the “ink” is applied to the paper.  They will naturally draw the letters inverted, an observation which then allows further discussion of optics and magnification.


  1. Create a ransom note about a scenario of your choosing and print it.
  2. Photocopy the note and then tear/shred the original into tiny pieces to give to the students.
  3. Obtain other samples of printing on different white papers with black ink, trying to make sure that the fonts are the same.  You might try printing the same passage on different papers on different printers or typewriters.  I suggest using the text from a newspaper or magazine article so that these paper and print types can be included as samples from suspects’ printers.  Suggestions for samples: ink jet printer, laser printer, typewriter, magazine article, newspaper article.  (The print and the paper quality will be different for each of these.)
  4. Place the samples from suspects’ printers in cups or dishes for students to access.
  5. Provide microscopes, slides, cover slips, etc. for students to use in their investigation.  (Compound microscopes on low power work great for this activity.)

Note: To prevent students from comparing answers, the teacher could provide several different ransom notes either within one period or for different periods.


  1. Read or relate the scenario description to the students.
  2. Provide samples of the note and samples from different printers on different types of paper.
  3. Instruct students that their task is to look at samples from the ransom note under the microscope and compare those samples with similar samples from the known sources of printer and paper evidence.
  4. Students should make a drawing of their sample from the ransom note and samples from the other printers.  The drawings should be detailed and accurate enough to support their conclusion as to what printer or what type of paper was used to create the ransom note.
  5. Students should write a brief statement describing which printer or what type of paper was used to create the ransom note and give evidence that supports their conclusion.  Part of their evidence should be their drawings.  Other evidence could be students’ statements about the type or quality of the paper as seen under the microscope.

The Scenario

This morning I received the following message in my mailbox.  I copied the letter to show to the principal and then, by mistake, I shredded the original.  Since I had just purchased a new shredder, I am sure that the samples that I have here are all from the ransom note.  Because of the content of the ransom note, I have also obtained printing  samples from the students who were in class yesterday.  Those people include AC, DJ, KE, JH, GJ, and NL.  Your task is to compare samples of the ransom note with the printing samples, make accurate drawings of what you see, and write a brief explanation of who you feel has the missing coffee cup.  Since I am going to go to this person and ask for my coffee cup back, your explanation MUST be supported by evidence.  Please include all evidence and drawings that you use to make your decision in your explanation.

The Note

Dear Rick,

When I was in your class today, I saw your elegantly engraved coffee cup sitting on the table.  Last night after everyone was gone, I entered the room and found your cup.  I just wanted you to know that I am willing to return it to you for the princely sum of eleven dollars and eleven cents.  If you ever want to see that coffee cup again, I would expect you to place the eleven dollars and eleven cents in an envelope and ease it under the front right corner of the candy machine down the hall.  No harm will come to the cup if you comply with this request.

Signed,  Me

The “e” lab (For comparison purposes only)


The purpose of this lab is to learn about microscopes, how they invert images, and the differences in size of samples under 10x, 40x, and 100x magnification.


Obtain the following materials from your teacher:

  • Microscope with auxillary light source
  • Microscope slide and cover slip
  • Eye dropper and beaker of water
  • “e” sample from teacher


  1. Set up your microscope as instructed by your teacher.
  2. Prepare a wet mount slide of the “e” by placing a drop of water on the center of your slide.
  3. Place the cover slip gently over the “e.”
  4. Look at the “e” under low power, medium power, and high power.
  5. Draw what you see in the appropriate circle below.


10x                                                   40x                                                 100x


  1. Describe in your own words the orientation of the “e” under the microscope.
  2. Describe in your own words how the sizes of the three views compared.
  3. Did the “e” look like you expected?

Rick Pomeroy is a teacher educator at the University of California, Davis, and is president-elect of CSTA. He can be reached at

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Written by Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California Davis and is a past-president of CSTA.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Rick
    I really like the idea of promoting critical thinking & solving a “crime” in a simple lab, such as the “e lab.” I’m sure the students will really enjoy thing. Thanks for sharing.

  2. It sounds like fun I was looking for a microscope lab for my seventh grade class, i’ll copy this and see how it works.

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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 2017)

Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.