This $1 foldable microscope could change science education as we know it

Foldscope foldable microscope paper
Microscope kits may invoke a sweet nostalgia for many adults today, but future generations of children in science classes may enjoy an entirely different microscopy experience. A research team at Stanford University has created a foldable paper microscope to help democratize science education for less than a dollar.

The origami-based paper microscope, Foldscope, comprises a simple list of parts: a sheet of plastic-coated paper (6 cents), a ball lens (17 cents for low magnification, 56 cents for high magnification), a 3-volt battery (6 cents), an LED light (21 cents), a switch (5 cents) and some copper tape (3 cents). Don’t pull out your calculator – that’s 58 cents for the low-magnification version of the Foldscope and 97 cents for the high-magnification version, based on a 10,000-unit production.

Related: Small, cheap lenses baked out of silicone turn any smartphone into a microscope

The printer used to print instructional lines on the sturdy paper also “prints” the lens onto the paper. “You should think of it as a drop of glue, a tiny drop of glue, except it is an optical-quality glue,” according to Manu Prakash, a bioengineer whose eponymous team (PrakashLab) created the Foldscope.

Foldscope foldable microscope demoWhile the affordability is certainly noteworthy, the DIY microscope is capable of providing more than 2,000x magnification. It also takes less than 10 minutes to fold, weighs less than two nickels, fits neatly into a pocket, and is rugged enough to survive a three-story drop or an accidental step on its frame.

One of the benefits of this low-cost, mass-production-friendly microscope is the potential for widespread hands-on use in K-12 science classrooms and universities. “Many children around the world have never used a microscope, even in developed countries like the United States,” according to PrakashLab’s research article about the Foldscope. “A universal program providing ‘a microscope for every child’ could foster deep interest in science at an early age.”

The Foldscope also has applications for general scientific and medical use in the field, along with the community of amateur microscopists across the globe, according to PrakashLab.

The team recently looked for 10,000 beta testers as part of its Ten Thousand Microscope Project, which aims to test the Foldscope in various settings and produce an open-source field manual. Prakash says 50,000 units of their foldable microscope will soon ship to testers in 130 countries.

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