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From dust motes, bacteria, chlorophyll and amoebas, a strange and fantastic world surrounds us. Working with people around the world, Public Lab has developed an affordable way to peek into this hidden world.
Using simple materials, we’ve developed a kit you can build yourself – the result of many teams’ work coming together! Introducing the Community Microscope:
It takes only fifteen minutes to build, and plugs into a smartphone or laptop. It’s a simple but elegant design — you focus it by tightening the bolts, and the basic version is made from a webcam with its lens flipped upside down.
Public Lab is an open community of activists, tinkerers, organizers, makers, educators and scientists around the world, who have worked together to design this kit. We’ve worked with a growing coalition to take a Do-It-Yourself approach to environmental justice issues.
We welcome you to join in making these techniques more accessible!
The Community Microscope Kit
We’re offering a range of options with mix-and-match components — start with the intro kit and we’ll be offering upgrade kits after the campaign.
The Intro Kit
This kit is very simple: a webcam, a platform of corrugated plastic, a set of nuts, bolts & rubber bands, and some double-sided adhesive strips! With it, you can easily see objects as small as 5 microns (a micron is 1/1000 of 1 millimeter), such as plant cells and the single-celled organisms that swim around in pond water and puddles. This kit is great for people who want to get started quickly and experiment with the way their microscope is put together.
We also have more advanced models for people who want to look at different things, take higher-quality photographs, and use stronger magnification lenses.
Everything is designed to fit together, so if you start with the basic kit, there’s a clear upgrade path to better components later. But using a microscopic ruler, we found that even with the webcam version, you can see things as small as 5 microns wide — 8x smaller than a human hair!
Microscope Plus & Super Microscope Kits
The next step up (the Plus Kit) includes an adapter to a 20x microscope objective lens — enabling you to see much smaller objects with better optics. Because of the modular construction of our kit, you can simply swap in the lens and raise the platform to accommodate it. Our Super Microscope Kit will include a 40x lens.
See how the parts fit together in a modular system; the larger lenses replace the flipped webcam lens shown here, and all cameras and lenses are interchangeable:
For use with higher quality lenses, we also offer kits with upgraded cameras — the Raspberry Pi camera.See how the parts fit together in a modular system; the larger lenses replace the flipped webcam lens shown here, and all cameras and lenses are interchangeable
Pi Camera Microscope Kit
The Pi Camera kit includes a much higher resolution Raspberry Pi camera (v1.3) — at 5 megapixels. In this prototype we were testing rubber bands, but the final will feature springs along with its laser-cut acrylic platforms:
Additional higher-end versions like our Super and Deluxe Pi Camera Microscope Kits include up to 100x microscope lenses! And our Classroom Kit includes materials for a whole class of students to make five microscopes.
How did we get here?
Not only does this kit build on the work of open source science groups like Parts & Crafts, Hackteria, Lifepatch and the Open Flexure Microscope project, but because of Public Lab’s mission to address environmental problems that affect people, we also worked with communities who are facing air pollution which they hope to photograph with these kits.
Public Lab has been working with people across Wisconsin who’ve seen pollution from a boom in frac sand mining — mining vast amounts of sand to use in oil and gas frac operations in other states. The especially worrisome part is a form of air pollution called respirable silica — a fine, sharp-edged crystalline dust which can cause respiratory problems — blowing over and into peoples homes and yards.
Although many efforts to document pollution use expensive air samplers, lab tests and equipment, people living around the mines can see dust piling up on their windowsills and in their homes.
Some community members sought a way to actually see these particles as small as 2.5 microns in size – an idea which led to the Community Microscope project. These photos could be used in advocacy and to raise awareness, but may also be helpful to see what particles are made of, just by examining them visually.
Why we need you
Now we need you to take the next step. Community efforts like these only work if we build a broad, inclusive community of practice.
That means we need activists, educators, hobbyists, and professional scientists to join in, and work together. We need illustrators and writers to present these ideas clearly. Engineers and tinkerers to refine the open source kits! We need all kinds of skills and backgrounds, so this means you!
How can you get involved? We’re building a list of challenges and goals, and need your help to:
- try it out — look at many different things!
- troubleshoot and refine its assembly improve the lighting system
- identify and address rough spots in the design
- produce documentation and even curriculum
- teach workshops and host community events
- and much more to come!
Sign up for a kit today and help bring this project to life.
A Do-It-Yourself approach
Public Lab, the open source community which launched the DIY spectrometer, the Balloon Mapping Kit, and the Infragram camera, has been working with community groups around the world who need affordable microscopes to photograph air pollutants, measure ocean microplastics, and identify other kinds of microscopic environmental problems.
Luckily, many open source groups around the world — like Hackteria and the OpenFlexure Microscope team, as well as folks in the Public Lab network — have been working for years to make scientific research accessible to anyone who wants to participate.
Building an alliance
How did these people all work together to get this far? Public Lab follows a coalition building model, where we connect people from around the world to cooperate on shared problems, like measuring air and water pollution. When communities facing pollution can team up with a larger community of makers, educators, and organizers, they can call in help, lead problem definition, and ensure that work is focused on a real-world problem.
8 years of Public LabWe’ve worked with communities around the world for eight years — since the BP oil disaster, and we’ve run several Kickstarters to distribute affordable science tools to people who need them.
Risks and challenges
NOT “JUST A STORE”
Distributing kits as we do, it’s always a risk that people will think of us as an online business, and not a growing community (and a non-profit) where their involvement is more important than the money they spend. We’re doing our best to communicate what we’re about through the story above, but we’re also dedicated to shaping the objects themselves, their boxes and packaging, to communicate this ethos. That said, we’ve run five successful Kickstarters in this way, and have been distributing tens of thousands of kits around the world for eight years — so it’s not new to us!
TACKLING CHALLENGES TOGETHER
Part of the challenge of Public Lab work in general is to encourage people to share and build things together — not just things they’ve done, but questions they want to ask, concerns they have, and requests for help. Sometimes it can feel like these are impositions on everyone else, but at Public Lab we celebrate them as the very foundation of the collaborative process. Sharing half-completed projects, doubts, and frustrations can help invite others into your work and strengthen it.
Of course, it can also be a challenge to encourage people to report back when they do projects. These projects are about more than “tools” — they’re about the stories that come from people adapting, reshaping, and applying them to a thousand different problems or scenarios. We’ll be highlighting many of the stories of people’s amazing work with balloon mapping kits
Finally, these essentials — engagement in collective brainstorming, troubleshooting, and sharing — are even more important with the Prototyping Kits we’re introducing. These kits have a range of issues and unknowns to tackle, and we’re counting on you all to get involved and put them through their paces.
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