Teaching Science with iOS — From Macro to Micro — Magnifying the Surface

Microscopes have been around since 1590. Up until the age of electronics, they too were personal devices. However, with small camera sensors connected to the lenses, researchers and educators can easily share images on a display in real-time.

Microscopes may be portable, but they aren’t made for fieldwork. Those cameras require power. And traditional microscopes require a level surface that won’t cause back strain, and a good light source, either from electricity, or from an old-fashioned mirror. With increased sophistication comes cost and weight. Scanning Electron Microscopes weigh hundreds of pounds and use dangerous elements. No microscopes travel well.

That is until now. Bodelin, a leader in handheld microscope manufacturing for education, law enforcement, and quality inspections, has introduced the ProScope Mobile for iOS ($399).  ProScope requires the AirMicro (free) app to display its view to an iPad or iPhone.

The ProScope Mobile creates its own Wi-Fi network. So instead of the kids in the back of the room with poor eyesight straining to see a washed out image at the front of the room, they can now be one of more than 250 participants in a local Wi-Fi network that streams live video to an iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone. And rather than let the teacher drive image capture, each device can capture its own images.

The basic ProScope Mobile comes with a 50X lens. Once connected, just press the device up against a surface and it transmits the image. Quality ranges from QVGA (320x240) to VGA (640X480). Plenty of resolution to look at everything from rocks, to insects, to skin and fabrics. 

The coolest thing about the ProScope Mobile isn’t its classroom application. Think about taking a class loaded with iPhones and iPads into the field, where no Wi-Fi exists, and turning the microscope on forest debris or piles of sand. What’s hiding just out of reach of the human eye? What does the skin of a slug really look like? How many different insects can you see in the field of view? How does moss differ from lichen in its attachment to a decaying log?

The ProScope Mobile isn’t the least expensive option for magnifying this, but it is probably the most flexible. Other devices require a USB connection to a PC. The ability to create its own Wi-Fi makes the ProScope Mobile ideal for shared fieldwork, even in the most remote locations. The ProScope is American-made in Oregon. Its rugged, straightforward design make it an ideal classroom companion for the sciences, hard and soft.

Magnification makes it easy to see the air pockets in the resin of my once-prized Moroccan trilobite, which proves it’s a Moroccan fake, not a real fossil.

Looking Inward

The journey need not stop at the surface. The latest biological and chemical research on life reaches within the cell to explore life-sustaining processes and data encoding. The most notable of these come from the results of the human genome project, which open sourced its data.

Illumina CEO Jay Flately donated his genome for educational purposes and wrapped it around his company’s iPad app, MyGenome ($.099).

MyGenome includes a tour of chromosomes that illustrates how genetic variants in different locations translate into health impacts or biological traits. Students can view individual genes, their locations, and biological impacts, and visualize where and how genome sequences differ from the “reference” human genome.

Using MyGenome also helps people understand disease risks, genetically determined conditions and predispositions, and carrier traits, how different genetic variants contribute to health risks and what diseases can be passed on to children. You can even explore how variations in a genome affect drug treatment responses and side affects.

Eventually Illumina plans to allow people to download their own genome into MyGenome so they work with their physicians to identify their own risks and how certain treatment choices might work better, or worse, based on their genome.

Like deeper explorations of the universe, the decoding of the human genome created more questions than answers. Popular science assumptions like the irrelevancy of junk DNA are going by the wayside as researchers demonstrate that most DNA has a meaningful function in the creation of life like transcriptional and translational regulation of protein-coding sequences.

If you look below the surface of those swirls on your fingers that represent your uniqueness, more uniqueness, and more complexity, lies in wait. The Human Genome Project was funded based on its promise in curing disease. Its true value has so far come from the new lens it created for understanding biology. Decoding the human genome, like peering back toward the origins of the universe, has raised as many questions as it answers.

The Range of Teaching

The instruments of science have opened up new vistas. There is so much information now that it is hard to fathom not only what we know, but to confront what we don’t know: from the way genes influence biology to what mechanisms are making the universe expand.

By teaching our children and ourselves to ask better questions, we can continue the quest for knowledge. We can move away from the rote memorization of facts about the number of moons around Jupiter. Instead, we can talk about how science has evolved from Galileo seeing four moons in his crude 30-power telescope in 1610, to NASA missions identifying 67 to date, not to mention a thin set of rings.

The iPad and the iPhone can bring real-time, personalized science to students, which goes beyond looking at slides or splitting geodes. They can become part of the greater inquiry by interacting with others through social media, running their own simulations, and creating their own experiences aided by these new tools.

I think students become much more interested in science when teachers admit that science doesn’t know everything, exposing the limitations of our instruments and our imaginations in order to inspire the next generation of student to fill those gaps. That is how science progresses: not by knowing, but by questioning everything.

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Daniel W. Rasmus is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Serious Insights. Rasmus is the author of Listening to the Future and Management by Design. Rasmus teaches at Bellevue College where he teaches Social Media and Personal Branding. He is also the Chief Knowledge Officer with the Virtual World Society.