September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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 Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.