This Little Device Turns Smartphones Into Microscopes

Engineers sent smartphone microscopes to rural schools in the US to boost STEM interest in students.
Fabienne Lang
The microscope device easily locks onto tablets or smartphonesPNNL

Oh, the things you'll discover through the unforgiving lens of a microscope. Sadly, with many school students currently learning from home due to the pandemic, they don't have access to lab instruments like microscopes.

Luckily for some of them, engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) developed an affordable, DIY microscope that clips onto smartphones or tablets, turning them into microscopes. 

These devices are a modern version of the world's first microscope designs, with just a glass bead and a plastic clip. But they pack 100x magnification and offer a close-up of some of the smallest details our world has to offer. 

These microscope devices are being sent to historically underserved and rural school students in the U.S., from New Mexico all the way to Alaska, turning their own homes into mini laboratories. 

The students follow lesson plans also offered by PNNL that accompany the microscopes, enabling them to get a closer peek into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and perhaps even forming the future minds in science. 

The lesson plans include the history of microscopes and why they're used, how to connect the 3D printing of the microscope to facets of nuclear technologies that use similar tech, along with ideas for activities to encourage the students to learn and use their microscopes.

Why microscopes are being sent to school kids

"Ideas in science and engineering start with observing the world," said Elizabeth Stephens, a senior STEM education consultant at PNNL.

"From those observations, you can begin asking questions to understand why or how things function or behave."

Last year, PNNL worked with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Office of Nuclear Energy, and regional partners to ship over 1,000 smartphone microscopes to students around the nation. 

This Little Device Turns Smartphones Into Microscopes
The PNNL microscopy STEM kit. Source: Elizabeth Stephens/PNNL

Now, PNNL is working with school districts in the Mid-Columbia region and Sequim to share 4,200 STEM kits to sixth-grade students, which will include the smartphone microscope, other microscopy-related tools, and accompanying lesson plans.

The hope is that these STEM kits help inspire students to learn about materials in a fun way, and develop questions about the world around them.

Other international initiatives are also working to provide microscopes to students. Like this Thai University that turns old smartphones into microscopes for its students. It's great to see how students are being inspired to learn about science, down to the minute speck of dirt.


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