March 24, 2021

Students Discover the World Through a Smartphone Microscope

Science kits containing PNNL’s smartphone microscope provide immersive STEM activities for historically underserved and rural students

children looking at phones and tablets connected to smartphone microscope

Photo: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

With just a glass bead and plastic clip, a smartphone can become a microscope.

That transformation enables hands-on learning experiences, which are especially vital during a time when many students are adapting to virtual and hybrid classroom environments.

Engineers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) developed an inexpensive, do-it-yourself smartphone microscope as a modern take on one of the earliest microscope designs. It is now being incorporated into lesson plans that are making their way into the hands of historically underserved and rural student populations across the country. Packing 100x magnification in a low-profile device, the smartphone microscope offers a glimpse at the tiniest details of our world, from the shape of salt grains, to pollen on flowers, and strands of hair.

Thanks to the strength of community partnerships between national laboratories and members of their local communities, young minds are being equipped with the types of immersive experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) that leave a lasting imprint.

“Ideas in science and engineering start with observing the world,” said Elizabeth Stephens, a senior STEM education consultant at PNNL. “From those observations, you can begin asking questions to understand why or how things function or behave.”

young woman looking at glass bead in someone's hand
(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

From Alaska to the Mountain West

Last year, the U.S Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy worked with regional partners to ship more than 1,000 smartphone microscopes to students around the country, including remote areas of New Mexico, Colorado, and Alaska. Many went to U.S. tribal communities where access to resources for STEM education can be scarce. The accompanying lesson plan provided an overview of the history of microscopes and their function, a way to connect the 3D printing of the microscope to facets of nuclear technologies that employ the same technology, and ideas for activities to encourage students’ love of learning.

Students examined objects they found personally or culturally relevant to them, including the porous structure of whale bone and pointy edges of a snowflake.

One student from the Pueblo of Picuris, north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, said: “With my mini microscope, I was able to look at household items, plants in the house, dead moths, spider webs, and things I found outside. Oh the things we can see up close!”

Another said, “My mini microscope gave me a whole new way to look at things on the go!”

hand touching the screen of a tablet with smartphone microscope clipped to device's camera
(Photo: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Around Washington State

Now, PNNL is working with school districts throughout the Mid-Columbia region and Sequim to distribute 4,200 STEM kits to 6th grade students. These kits will contain the smartphone microscope along with other materials related to microscopy. Associated lesson plans will guide students through exploring the world around them, using a variety of scientific tools to help them see and understand where science and engineering ideas originate.

The lessons also contain smartphone microscopy images so that students can complete learning activities without a smartphone.

“By observing nature and the world around them, students can develop ideas and be inspired about ways to design other materials,” Stephens said.

Visit this site to download files to print your own smartphone microscope or download a printable flyer about the device.

STEM kits with smartphone microscope, microscope slides, ruler, and handheld magnifying glass
(Photo by Elizabeth Stephens | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Published: March 24, 2021

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