An optical microscope so fun and intuitive, a kid could use it

Three University of California San Francisco (UCSF) researchers had a vision: to find a way to make optical microscopes much easier to understand and more fun to use, particularly for kids.

Images of a lily's anther (top) and a pinecone (right) at 100x magnification captured with the LegoScope.

Harrison Liu, Michael Sachs, and Reid Williams—who are bioengineering, biomedical sciences, and biophysics graduate students, respectively—collaborated with University of California-Berkeley (UCB) and IDEO Design Consulting (Palo Alto, CA) to conceptualize and develop their idea. They also worked with Dan Fletcher at UCB, whose lab developed the CellScope mobile microscope, to create a kit based on Lego building blocks. Dubbed LegoScope, the kit allows young students and microscope enthusiasts to design custom microscopes, take and save photos, and discover the basic principles of optics and microscopy, Sachs told BioOptics World.

LegoScope turns to an unlikely yet widely available and cheap building material—Lego building blocks—to make understanding microscopy easy and fun for kids and adults alike. And with its optical components, it costs around $250 total to build. (All images courtesy of the University of California San Francisco)

The researchers turned to Legos as the basis for their concept because they are manufactured to high tolerances, making them perfect for optics, says Sachs. What's more, he adds, "Legos are readily available, easily modifiable, and most importantly non-intimidating and fun for students." Of course, LegoScope also consists of the major components of a microscope, including a base, stage, light source, objective, and eyepiece. In order to "Lego-fy" the optics, the researchers 3D-printed their own lens adapters using a uPrint 3D printer (Stratasys; Eden Prarie, MN) to enable them to snap together with Legos as well as make them easy to swap in and out. The researchers' current design uses a 10x DIN achromatic standard objective (Edmund Optics; Barrington, NJ) and a 30 mm cage plate (Thorlabs; Newton, NJ), which allows for any standard thread objective to be used with the same adapters. LegoScope can also be used with any cell phone or smartphone that has a camera—a 3D-printed camera phone adapter attaches to the top near the eyepiece to allow the phone to capture images that can be shared.

USCF biomedical sciences grad student Michael Sachs demonstrates LegoScope to some kids at the Bay Area Science Festival.

The total cost to build LegoScope is about $250, making it affordable enough to be implemented in school classrooms. Sachs explains that he and his team are now working on a design that is around 10-fold cheaper and that uses a component lens capable of around 50x total magnification, enabling cellular-level imaging. The team is also designing a lesson plan that teachers could use as a guide for using the LegoScope in a classroom, he says.

Sachs was surprised at how quickly young kids understood how to use LegoScope when they demonstrated it at the California Academy of Sciences and the Bay Area Science Festival. "Turns out they were better at designing the stage and body than we were," he says.

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