Nurturing interest for science through Foldscope, the low-cost microscope

Foldscope
A students holds a Foldscope during a workshop at MSSRF

Students of government schools were busy folding paper left and right, and fixing lens in them, as per the commands of a teacher. To be specific, they were learning to make a “low-cost microscope” during a recently held workshop at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai.

“This is called ‘Foldscope’, a low cost microscope, which you can take wherever you wish,” said M Pandiarajan, who trains children to assemble the papers to make a Foldscope.

Foldscope is an easily-affordable paper microscope, according to its founders Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski. While the former is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, the latter is his PhD student.

Foldscope
The inventors don’t charge a penny for the Foldscopes that are distributed to students

They were inspired to invent the Foldscope during one of their field visits. While travelling, they often found it difficult to carry and handle big microscopes. Thus, they came up with the idea of a more compact device, and invented the paper-made Foldscope in in 2014. They also published their invention in ‘PLoS ONE’ magazine.

According to their paper, “The Foldscope is an origami-based optical microscope that can be assembled from a flat sheet of paper in under 10 minutes. It weighs less than two nickels, is small enough to fit in a pocket, requires no external power and can survive being dropped from a three-story building or stepped on by a person.”

Also read | Jantar Mantar, the only science magazine in English in TN turns 25

Since 2015, the inventors have distributed Foldscopes, along with the Moore Foundation that supports the invention, for free in more than 135 countries as a pilot project.

“In most of the countries, the Foldscopes are being distributed through NGOs and science popularisation organisations. In Tamil Nadu, organisations like MSSRF are distributing them. Members from Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF), who are trained in assembling Foldscopes, organise workshops and reach out to the schools. Since 2015, around 300 schools have been given the Foldscopes,” said Pandiarajan, a member of TNSF. He was trained by Arockiasamy Arulandu, scientist, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB).

Foldscope
The MSSRF conducted the Foldscope workshop during the ‘Universal Children’s Day’ celebrations on November 20

The inventors don’t charge a penny for the Foldscopes that are distributed to the students. Rather, they ask them to submit the images, which they shot using their Foldscopes, on the website ‘Microcosmos’.

“The website is a kind of an online Foldscope club. The Foldscope can be fixed on a smartphone and using the phone camera, the students can capture the images they see. Then the images can be uploaded on the website with a caption. It is surprising to note that most of the submissions are from Tamil Nadu. As far as 400 images have been uploaded till now,” said Pandiarajan.

Also read | The science behind igniting young minds

The MSSRF conducted the Foldscope workshop during the ‘Universal Children’s Day’ celebrations on November 20, which marks the anniversary of the UN General Assembly adopting the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

“This year marked the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the CRC. To celebrate it, the MSSRF started an initiative called ‘Every Child a Scientist’. Each child has the right to dream and to become a scientist. To encourage their interest in science, we organised a Foldscope workshop. These Foldscopes are donated to us by Prof Bruce Alberts, former editor-in-chief, Science (magazine) and former president, National Academy of Sciences, USA,” said Jayashree Balasubramanian, director – Communication, MSSRF.

Foldscope
The Foldscope, which weighs only eight grams, costs between ₹110 and ₹150

Iniyan, a Class 9 student of a government school in Chennai, who attended the Foldscope workshop at MSSRF, said that the pocket-sized microscope helps him understand his science lessons in a better way.

“In our schools, we have the conventional microscopes. But our teachers never permitted us to use them since those are delicate to handle and also expensive. We see the microscopes only from a distance. But we can handle the Foldscope without any difficulty or fear,” the student said.

Also read | This teacher sings Math and Science

With the Foldscope, students like Iniyan take samples of leaves, insects, water and all that interests them. “We have studied different parts of leaves using Foldscope. It helps us understand the subject easily,” said Iniyan.

The Foldscope, which weighs only eight grams, costs between ₹110 and ₹150. It provides a 140X magnification, much higher than the 60X microscopes used in schools, said Pandiarajan. “The state school education department can purchase these Foldscopes and distribute in government schools instead of buying only one expensive microscope for every school. It will make the science learning fun,” he added.