Scientists have developed a new 3D printed smartphone microscope that allows users to control live microbes and play games like Pac-man with them. “Many subject areas like engineering or programming have neat toys that get kids into it, but microbiology does not have that to the same degree,” said Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, an assistant professor at Stanford University in the US.
“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, said Riedel-Kruse.
The LudusScope consists of a platform for the microscope slide where Euglena – light-responsive microbes – swim freely, surrounded by four LEDs. Kids can influence the swimming direction of these
microbes with a joystick that activates the LEDs. Above the platform, a smartphone holder positions the phone’s camera over a microscope eyepiece, providing a view of the cells below.
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On the phone, children can run a variety of software that overlay on top of the image of the cells. One looks like the 1980s video game Pac-Man, with a maze containing small white dots. Kids can select one cell to track, then use the LED lights to control which direction the cell swims in an attempt to guide it around the maze and collect the dots.
Another game looks like a soccer stadium. Kids earn points by guiding the Euglena through the goal posts. Other non-game applications provide microscope scale-bars, real-time displays of swimming speed or zoomed-in views of individual cells.
These let kids collect data on Euglena behaviour, swimming speed and natural biological variability. Riedel-Kruse encourages teachers to have students model the behaviours they see using a simple programming application called Scratch, which many kids already learn in school.
Each of the elements, from the plastic microscope to the chamber that holds the Euglena, is something youngsters can build themselves from simple, easily available parts, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.