DIY microscope workshops bring discovery back to the classroom

Photo by Barbara Tyroler.
Photo by Barbara Tyroler.

Young people are natural scientists who are curious about the world, and a microscope is a great way to help them explore. But getting quality scientific tools in their hands presents financial and logistical challenges for educators. Certainly, we can all remember a cabinet of dusty, broken, or unused microscopes in one of our childhood classrooms.

ASCB Council Member Bob Goldstein of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found a solution to this dilemma in the do-it-yourself microscope design of Kenji Yoshino. The handmade device uses a laser pointer lens and a Plexiglas and wood stand that firmly holds any smartphone or tablet for group viewing and collecting images.

Goldstein developed a workshop for elementary school teachers based on Yoshino’s design. For the last several years he’s been conducting sessions where teachers assemble a microscope to take back to their classroom, learn to use it, and brainstorm how it can best match the needs of their students’ interests and the curriculum. Since 2016, the program has grown from a pilot test with a teacher at his children’s school to building more than 500 microscopes so far with teachers in public schools across the state and at a North Carolina statewide teachers’ conference. Goldstein answered a few questions about this project for the ASCB Newsletter.

When and where did you first encounter this DIY microscope idea?

In 2013, I saw Kenji’s design for a simple smartphone-based DIY microscope on The design had an LED light and plenty of room to light what you wanted to look at from various angles, and it had fine control of the stage height. So I built one with my kids. The moment we put my smartphone on it and looked at something I said, “HOLY CRAP!” (My kids told me not to swear.) The microscopes aren’t super high powered, but it’s still amazing what can be seen using just a smartphone and about $10 of hardware store parts. There‘s a ton of interesting stuff to be seen just beyond the resolution limit of the unaided eye—some kinds of cells, for example!

Kenji’s a really nice guy. We’ve Skyped a few times to brainstorm about other microscope plans he has and to swap ideas and stories about how the microscopes are used. I think it was super generous for him to develop something that really anyone can build and then to share it freely online.

Of course, there are other inexpensive microscope designs out there. Like many people, I’m in awe of Manu Prakash, whose group designed the Foldscope. Foldscopes can be made cheaply, so Manu’s group can distribute them in incredible numbers.

The microscopes we’re building are a little more expensive—about $8 per microscope—but they have some advantages: They’re transparent, making their inner workings obvious to teachers and kids, so they figure out how to use them without too much input. The parts are readily available, so teachers or kids can make more microscopes anytime they like. Everything is available in hardware stores except the light and the lens, which can be ordered online. And kids naturally interact around each microscope, all seeing the same thing together. They talk about what they’re seeing. This is a big improvement over the microscopes I remember from school in which only I would know that I could only see my own eyelashes

How have teachers reacted to the DIY microscope?

In the workshops, my favorite moment is generally when teachers first see an image on their own phone. Sometimes they scream! No kidding. At the end of each workshop, I set aside some time for teachers to brainstorm with each other about how they’ll use the microscopes with their students, but I often hear brainstorming starting as soon as teachers see an image, which makes me smile.

Red onion.

What has been the most surprising thing you have witnessed with students interacting with these microscopes? And why is important to have a tool like this in the classroom?

My favorite unexpected thing that teachers have told me: Often kids will bring in things from recess and ask to look at them under the microscope—plants, bugs, etc.  I love that the microscopes might make the gap from curiosity to scientific exploration short enough that kids can act on their innate curiosity before the moment passes. Also, I’ve been surprised at how just about 5–10 days each year out of my schedule can have what I think is a reasonable impact on students and teachers. I plan to keep doing this, and I‘m applying for some funding to expand it with a staff person. And I’m really eager to help other scientists do the same if they‘re interested. My website has info to try to help anyone run their own workshops. I’m happy to chat with people about it.

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.