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Cellphone Microscopy: Turn a Phone Into a Functional Piece of Scientific Medical Equipment (Science-hack Your Phone: Part 1)

Cellphones do a great job of helping us capture funny and memorable moments that we can share through our favorite social media sites, text messages, and email. That same imaging technology can be used as a tool for medical and scientific field work—or just for fun at home or in the classroom with a stack of science slides. A homemade cellphone microscope brings small things into new focus! (Plus, it's super cool to say you turned a phone into a functional microscope!)

One more week of winter break? Is it feeling long? Have you tried out all the new video games, ripped all your new music, and found that your new headphones are comfortable 24/7? Being out of school may be fun, but the sprawl of days can start to lose its shine in the lag time before the big ball drops on New Year's Eve. What's next? What should you do?

There are an endless number of possible answers to the question. (See our suggestions for Winter Break list.) But here's a thought if you are tinker-inspired, medically-minded, globally-aware, or just like the idea of a project that will let you hack an electronic device without doing any long-term damage.

Did anyone in the house get a new phone for the holidays or in recent months? If so, is there an old phone lying around that you can co-opt in the name of science? (Hint: Check the spare parts and catch-all drawer in the kitchen, basement, or wherever it appears in your house. Old phones often migrate there.) Found one? Why not uplevel an old phone and turn it into a DIY piece of science equipment?


Making Medical Diagnostic Tools

Portable medical diagnostic tools have the potential to help improve health care around the world. If doctors and scientists can analyze specimens or samples in the field using something as ubiquitous as a cell phone, the chances of making critical evaluations and diagnoses increases. Remote and portable diagnostic tools may save lives and advance science.

Cellscope example, Eva Schmid

A Berkeley Lab and Cellscope Development

A research team at the Fletcher Lab at the University of California, Berkeley designed the original cellscope and has continued to expand development and prototyping to include new cellphone-based and portable tools that can do such targeted tasks as view the inner ear and look into the human eye. Learn more about the team's lineup of tools and their K-12 Explorer imaging iOS app on the CellScope site. On the CellScope site, you can also glimpse the LEGOScope, a LEGO-based version that integrates building blocks and still offers cellphone-based functionality.

(Image credit: Eva Schmid, CellScope site. Can you guess what is pictured?)

There are clear global implications for portable diagnostic tool research and development, and you can explore this area of engineering by turning an available cell phone into a cellscope, a microscope that takes advantage of your phone's imaging features and capabilities.

In the "Picture This: Building a Cell Phone Microscope" photography science project, students take what they know about how a compound microscope works and apply it to the construction of a cellphone-based microscope using a 1 millimeter (mm) glass ball lens as the "objective lens" and a paper towel roll cardboard tube as the basis for the stand. (Note: The lens for this project is a specialty item that may need to be ordered. See below for thoughts on how you might experiment with the materials.)

The build for this cellphone microscope is pretty straightforward. The challenge then is figuring out how to use it or how to improve it!


Enacting the Engineering Design Process

A basic cellphone microscope offers real-world functionality. But how can it be improved? In the Science Buddies procedure, you will need to order a specialty item for the lens. Are there alternatives to the glass ball that would make constructing a cellscope even easier and more affordable? This is the kind of questions researchers and engineers ask and explore during development, prototyping, and testing. To learn more about the Engineering Design Process, see this outline of the steps of the Engineering Method.


Putting a Cellphone Microscope to Use

Cholera and malaria are two examples of diseases portable microscopes can help scientists and doctors diagnose and identify in the field. What can you use your "cellscope" to zoom in on? With the information provided in the project and related resources, you can make your own slide sets to examine with your cellphone microscope.


Family Fun: Make a Game of It

Turn identifying a set of homemade slides into a puzzle for your family and friends. You create the mystery slides, and see if they can guess what they are looking at through your cellphone microscope! They will all be impressed with your microscope, and everyone may want to get in on the action creating slides, so be sure to have a few blanks on hand.

See Part 2 of our "Science-hack Your Phone" student science series!


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Your Science!
What will you explore for your science project this year? What is your favorite classroom science activity? Email us a short (one to three sentences) summary of your science project or teaching tip. You might end up featured in an upcoming Science Buddies newsletter!



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