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Virtual Lab Offers Access to NASA's Microscopes
A screenshot of the Virtual Lab main page. Any scientist would dream of using four interactive $500,000 desktop microscopes for free. With the help of Kennedy Space Center's Virtual Lab, students across the nation are the researchers getting a chance to do just that.

Image to right: The Virtual Lab software is the gateway to accessing some of NASA's most powerful microscopes. It also takes participants on a virtual field trip such as the one shown here. Credit: Geoffrey Bruce, Ames Research Center.

"While we can't place students in front of every microscope at Kennedy, we can place Virtual Lab at almost every computer in the country," said Theresa Martinez Schroeder, education technology project manager.

The NASA Office of Education-funded Virtual Lab emphasizes the importance of making science engaging for students by using materials they can relate to beyond the classroom. By providing virtual access, students can use Kennedy's instruments and high-tech hardware without interfering with center security or operations.

The lab is a suite of virtual microscopes with names like something out of Star Trek, including a scanning electron microscope, light microscope, atomic force microscope and an energy dispersive spectrometer. Many have controls such as zoom, focus, magnification and brightness, and annotation tools.

A sample of stromalite as seen through the Virtual Lab. Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia recently began studying the beginning of life on Earth by examining a 3.5-billion-year-old stromatolite using Virtual Lab to share data. Also, researchers from the Field Museum in Chicago are using the lab to study rare specimens of what is believed to be a new species of starfish.

Image to left: Students and researchers can examine and label images of material samples like this chunk of stromalite. Credit: Chas Conway, Beckman Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign + View Larger Image

"These studies of the stromatolites are essential to the search for life on other planets, also estimated to be 3 to 4 billion years old," said Schroeder. "A visit to this area of Australia is being turned into a virtual field trip, with the use of the lab."

NASA's Ames Research Center in California is developing the virtual field trip and it soon will be available at http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/vft. NASA employees are encouraged to contribute to Virtual Lab by providing NASA-related specimens. Items such as flight weld samples and NASA-developed paint, which changes color to show corrosion, currently are being used.

For details and to download Virtual Lab software, visit http://learn.arc.nasa.gov/vlab/index.html. Beginning in December, educators can access more than 70 lesson plans, discussion boards and more at http://edcollege.ucf.edu/nasa.

For more information, contact Theresa Schroeder at 321.867.0590 or theresa.m.schroeder@nasa.gov.

Jennifer Wolfinger
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center