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An introduction to minerals and rocks under the microscope

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In this free course, An introduction to minerals and rocks under the microscope, you will experience the study of minerals using a polarising microscope. While the study of minerals can involve electron or ion beam chemical analysis, the polarising microscope remains the prime tool for the study of rock thin sections and is the foundation of learning to recognise, characterise and identify rocks.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the facts, concepts, principles, theories, classification systems and language associated with minerals and rocks
  • use the essential terms, concepts and strategies of mineralogy
  • apply knowledge and understanding of the study of rock thin sections using a polarising microscope
  • work with and recognise a variety of minerals and microtextures in igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks
  • make systematic descriptions and identifications of minerals in rocks, observing them using images of thin sections viewed under a polarising microscope, and deduce how and in what environments the minerals and rocks were formed.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 8 hours
  • Updated Monday 21st March 2016
  • Intermediate level
  • Posted under Science
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An introduction to minerals and rocks under the microscope


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The study of the structure and characteristics of minerals is fundamental to the identification of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks, and the interpretation of the environment in which they formed. This free course introduces the polarising microscope, the main tool used to study minerals in rock thin sections, which remains the foundation of learning to recognise, characterise and identify rocks.

The different atomic structures of minerals and their characteristics are explained, and the course develops the skills to identify minerals using features such as mineral shape, colour, grain size, opacity, refractive index and cleavage. The unique features of the polarising microscope are also covered, including extinction, birefringence and pleochroism.

Recognising minerals and understanding their structure is the basis for recognising rocks and interpreting microtextures to learn how they were formed. Evidence gathered by careful study of minerals in thin sections is a key part of the interpretation of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of level 2 study in Science [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

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