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Smartphone microscope turns microbiology into game time

Those of us with kids are sensitized to notice things others might not. The location of bathrooms, cool toys, or -- in the case of a recent paper that appeared in my inbox -- the intersection of 3D printing, microorganisms, video games and a type of programming for kids. (I have a middle school boy, so this was a perfect storm of cool.)

I jumped on the opportunity to write about the work by bioengineer Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, PhD, and he didn't disappoint.

The device is a smartphone microscope teachers can print using plans he provided, and kids can assemble on their own (with some supervision).

When it's assembled, it has a platform for a microscope slide and on top there’s a cell phone holder positioned over a microscope eye piece. For his demo, Riedel-Kruse uses a light-sensitive organism call Euglena and surrounds the slide with four LEDs that can be controlled with a joystick (after kids do a bit of work assembling a circuit to connect the joystick to the LEDs).

In its simplest form, kids can watch on the phone as they light LEDs and watch Euglena move in different directions. But it can get more complex.

Riedel-Kruse and his team developed software that can run on the phone and overlay on top of the image of the cells. Some software is educational – kids can measure the cells and make observations of the behavior. But others are more interactive. Kids can select a particular cell then try to control its movement using the LEDs through a Pac-Man like maze (shown in the video above), or through soccer goals.

The programming comes in if kids want to try to mimic their observations of Euglena behavior in a program called Scratch, which allows kids to draw pictures and program the behavior of the object.

Riedel-Kruse said that other fields have fun toys that can lure kids in, like Lego robotics that are now very popular in middle schools, or simplified programming languages like Scratch. Microbiology doesn’t have any game-like way of lighting kids’ imaginations.

Riedel-Kruse told me, “The initial idea for this project was to play games with living cells on your phone. And then it developed much beyond that to enable self-driven inquiry, measurement and building your own instrument.”

Riedel-Kruse and his team have tested their device on kids and teachers, and they're now making some iterations based on that feedback and working with a company to create something people can buy. Teachers interested in trying it out now can use open source information contained in paper, which was published in PLOS ONE.

Previously:Paramecia PacMan: Researchers create video games using living organisms, Non-scientist video gamers’ RNA insights captured in peer-reviewed publication and Re-creating the role of labs in public schools to inspire innovation
Video by Ingmar Riedel-Kruse

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