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Leeuwenhoek is drooling in his grave

Ooh, ick, I guess that’s a really disgusting zombie image. But anyway, look at this: a cheap and easy DIY photomicrography setup.

Back in the day, I once built a homely kludge consisting of our very expensive microscope, a nice 35mm SLR, and a bit of cardboard and duct tape to hold it exactly the right distance from the eyepieces that did sort of the same thing. And then we had a lab in cell biology at the start of the semester in which students looked at a variety of cell types and were asked to draw them…and all over the room students were just whipping out their cell phones, aiming them down the eyepieces, and taking photos instead.

Maybe we’re getting to the point where we can save the department a whole lot of money on those low-end student scopes and instead build a bunch of these little frames and ask our students to bring their cell phones to lab.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    The yoof of these days have it easy. Back when I were taking biologie, we had to draw what we saw in microscopes and we were supposed to like it. Now it’s point and click. Where’s the challenge in that?

  2. ludicrous says

    Nice holiday gift for the young rellies….oh, wait…wonder what they’ll think of to send to their sexting buds.

  3. Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^= says

    Where’s the challenge in that?

    Where, indeed.

    It’s the poor teachers I feel sorry for. When I was a kid, they could set such an assignment at the beginning of a double biology lesson, and be pretty certain of having the whole period to themselves for marking homework. Now they get maybe two minutes, and the students will want some more teaching!

  4. marcoli says

    My students are always taking pictures through the microscope with their cell phones. I think it is pretty clever, but they usually come out kind of blurry. You can get little clip on lenses for cell phones for pretty cheap on Amazon. For the price (~ $10) they can actually work reasonably well as a macro lens for taking close ups of insects, etc.

  5. donh says

    I think this is an impressive use of technology. OTOH, if I draw something, I remember it. I can see the value either way.

  6. ChasCPeterson says

    Or get them to bring their laptops or tablets. Just-fine USB video cameras made specially for microscopes are available for a couple hundred bucks each.

  7. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    I think it’s fine that they take pictures, but they should also be illustrating them. You can take a picture of something that you haven’t really looked at, but you can’t draw something that you haven’t looked at. Unless the point of the exercise isn’t for students to interact with material.

  8. blf says

    I’ve no problem per se with (easily-)affordable technology being used to capture images. But, like other commentators have suggested, drawing is a valuable exercise in understanding… either based on what is seen, or based on the images. Explain is one of the key goals here…;

  9. ChasCPeterson says

    dittos to AE et al.
    Photos are very useful in studying for the practical exam, but in-lab time needs to be spent looking long and hard; drawing makes ‘em do that.

  10. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Drawing might be able to, though my drawing skills are limited. Is spending time labelling the photograph properly also valuable?

  11. blf says

    Is spending time labelling [sic] the photograph properly also valuable?

    In my opinion (“evidenced” only by my own experience), Yes, with caveats: A rough sketch or “map”, and/or justifiably enhanced images shows you’ve made an effort to understand and explain.

    I suggest taking a drawing, sketching, or mechanical-drawing class. Whilst the specific artistic or engineering skills may never be used per se, the underlying skills will come in useful. (And I myself found both sorts of classes fun…)

  12. brianpansky says

    Maybe we’re getting to the point where we can save the department a whole lot of money on those low-end student scopes and instead build a bunch of these little frames and ask our students to bring their cell phones to lab.

    i really like this idea.

    and if the students need to do drawings by hand also, there’s nothing preventing such a task from being assigned.

  13. says

    Have you people ever seen student drawings of cells? Technical illustration, they ain’t.

    There are two parts to this exercise, though. They are supposed to collect data about these cells (and also carry out other experiments), and then write them up in the style of a formal scientific paper, and the illustrations are supposed to be presented with captions, labels, all that stuff, exactly as if they’re being published in Nature. I accept hand-drawn or cell phone pics equally — they are evaluated on their ability to explain the content of the image.

    Now I’m imagining Nature accepting a squiggle drawn with a sharpie or a poorly sharpened pencil and labeled “Amoeba” in a paper.

  14. profpedant says

    We are still a few years away from being able to assume that everyone in a class can afford to have a fancy phone or iPad-like thing.

  15. marcoli says

    I find the process of having students draw what they see to be a pretty interesting window into the variety of perceptions. I teach a lab where students draw a lot of fruit fly embryo pictures. Some are very good and perceptive, others are very childish with little sign that they can translate what they see to their drawing hand. Some draw big pictures, others can only draw tiny postage stamps despite being flogged repeatedly for doing that.
    What I should do is look for a correlation between biologically accurate drawing and ability to think critically on tests. Hmmm.

  16. ChasCPeterson says

    We are still a few years away from being able to assume that everyone in a class can afford to have a fancy phone or iPad-like thing.

    Yes, that’s very true and important.
    On the other hand, most places, even community colleges, are close to being able to put a computer on every teaching-lab bench.

  17. blf says

    Have you people ever seen student drawings of cells? Technical illustration, they ain’t.

    Yes. My own. Of cells, of larger organisms, and of smaller(?) things (microelectronic components).

    My instructors (plural) asked me to do short presentations on how to make such good drawings. I’ve won an award at an (amateur’s) art show, and my work has been displayed in several exhibitions.

    I do not (now) recall what I said / speculated. Perhaps a combination of the before-mentioned classes, some natural aptitude / skill, and my father’s influence (a skilled mechanical draftsman back in the blueprint days).

    What I am slightly annoyed about here is the seeming implication that student sciency-drawings must be bad. (And the unstated albeit vague implication published drawings are not-bad.)
    Are either completely accomplished? No, but yes, student drawings are typically worse.
    Horrible? Not always.
    Student drawings generally tend towards to less than useful? Perhaps.

  18. blf says

    It occurs to me that some people (including myself) have absolutely NO drawing ability when using computer mice. I learned mechanical drafting, and some forms of art-style drawing, yonks ago — but all pen/stylus/pencil-on-paper. I’ve never been able to master moving a mouse around and making anything useful or attractive, and often not even sensible.

    In the other hand, I can describe certain types of images using abstracted langauges such as Ken Thompson’s pic.

  19. Rey Fox says

    I feel like there’s sort of a learned helplessness associated with drawing similar to that seen with math. “I’m no good at math”, “I’m no good at drawing”, as if they’re both something that a particular class of nerdy kid does. You don’t need to be the next Rembrandt to be able to represent knowledge visually.

  20. vaiyt says

    It occurs to me that some people (including myself) have absolutely NO drawing ability when using computer mice.

    *raises hand*

  21. Olav says

    Rey Fox #20:

    I feel like there’s sort of a learned helplessness associated with drawing similar to that seen with math. “I’m no good at math”, “I’m no good at drawing”, as if they’re both something that a particular class of nerdy kid does. You don’t need to be the next Rembrandt to be able to represent knowledge visually.

    Well yes, but then again, it is also a skill and technique that must be taught. If you just put a group of (high school/secondary school?) students that did not receive adequate prior instruction in front of microscopes and tell them “draw this!”, a few of them who are naturally adept at drawing are likely going to do fine and a lot of others are going to fail. And as we know, failure is discouraging. So they are going to conclude “I just cannot do it, drawing is not my thing.” And they may even lose interest in biology or some such field altogether because of it.

    With regard to the “I’m no good at math” mentality: to my regret I caught that too when I was in secondary school. Then again, at that time I had a math teacher who had absolutely no interest in teaching. I remember him well. When a student told him they did not understand something and could he please explain again or differently he would just loudly sigh “you are probably just slow/stupid if you do not understand, can’t you see how simple it is, you either get it or you don’t”. So, I didn’t do well there. I was able to catch up on some of it later thankfully. But I feel my career choices would perhaps have been different if I had a better foundation in maths at a young age.

  22. stwriley says

    Wow! Thanks for bringing this to our attention PZ.

    I may well be teaching HS biology next year and this will come in very handy. Our district is (and probably will be) deep in a budget hole, so no new money will be forthcoming to pay for things like lab equipment. What we have now is a few ancient microscopes with nothing that could even be charitably called imaging equipment. A handy guy like me with a home workshop full of tools could turn out a whole lab full of these stands in a day, and every one of my students has a cell phone with a camera. I could pay for it all out of pocket quite easily, something that otherwise would be impossible for the same or similar results. This is a tool that will enable me to do things I’d never hoped to be able to do with my students, and one that they’ll get a real kick out of, both as a clever, self-made device and for what it can show them about the microscopic realm and hands-on experimental technique for studying it (and they absolutely love any chance to get hand-on with experiments.) Add in the kick of it being their own cell phones that are they key component and being allowed to use them in class (normally something that’s against the rules) and they’ll take to it even if they don’t much care for biology (shocking, I know, but there you are.)

    I can see a time when I might well (if I can keep a biology position) have a lab full of tools far more sophisticated than might otherwise be possible, because of ideas like this. You’ve shown us all some other DIY lab equipment in the past (including that great article on the $500 home molecular biology lab) and I just want you to know that teachers like myself greatly appreciate it. We may not have the resources of elite private schools, but we do what we can to compensate and this kind of idea helps more than most people might realize.

  23. zekehoskin says

    Absolutely, students should be required to sketch. Learned helplessness is the applicable phrase.
    There is another hand – I remember TAing physics labs and some (I’m guessing) architecture major had to have spent many hours on his drawing of the simple electric motor they built.

  24. Al Dente says

    zekehoskin @25

    Some people cannot draw. If you think they should be punished for this lack by spending fruitless hours trying to make a drawing to please some arbitrary standard then I hope you are not an academic.

  25. says

    Let me say that my students are absolutely not penalized if they’re unable to draw well. They’re evaluated on their ability to clearly state the scientific merit of an observation.

  26. ChasCPeterson says

    Back in my day –eh? *adjusts hearing aid, lubricates knee*–before all this here digitable photography and interwebs and the like, there was no choice but to draw stuff you were supposed to learn well enough to recognize by sight. Why, we’d tie an onion to oour belt–that was the style in those days–and sharpen our pencils–you had to do that on account of the war, you could only get wood pencils–and do our damned best. And we improved greatly with practice. Sometimes we’d even have to turn in our lab notebooks–paper ones–with our drawings to get graded on them. Never hurt a bit.
    But even then, it was not artistic ability that was evaluated, but evidence of really looking and understanding what was seen.

  27. says

    You laugh. The other day, I attended a student seminar in which she expressed her appreciation of this really cool gadget she read about called a “camera lucida”, and wished we had one in our labs.

  28. says

    Olav:

    Well yes, but then again, it is also a skill and technique that must be taught.

    Well, no, it doesn’t. In some disciplines, being able to draw well is important, and yes, specific learning on that front is needed. However, most people are able to do quite well with a rude sketch which is meant to represent something, if only to show that they have indeed learned about whatever it is they have sketched. A lot of people who claim “oh, I can’t draw at all!” are accomplished doodlers, when they are occupied fully with something else.

    Rey’s point stands. I’m an artist, so yeah, being able to draw well is rather important. There’s no need to be able to draw well to sketch out a cell or other object. People do mix up draw with “oh gods, I have to draw to art standards, fuck, I can’t draw, whatamIgonnado?” Not the same thing at all. If someone says “hey, draw a circle”, how many people claim “oh no, I can’t draw”?

  29. ChasCPeterson says

    she expressed her appreciation of this really cool gadget she read about called a “camera lucida”, and wished we had one in our labs.

    Ha! That’s great!
    You should show her a planimeter. And a slide rule–now those are cool!

  30. Rey Fox says

    Some people cannot draw.

    Again, I’m not insisting on knowing color theory or keeping consistent light sources for chiaroscuro. I’m talking a bean with a squiggly line in it to represent a mitochondrion and its two membranes. Simple size and spatial relationships and such. Diagramming.

  31. lochaber says

    We are still a few years away from being able to assume that everyone in a class can afford to have a fancy phone or iPad-like thing.

    I think we are even closer to where only those with the latest iphone 6q whatever can afford to go to college…

    :(

  32. carlie says

    Whoa – literally today someone was just telling me about this. Like, 5 hours ago. Um, Paul, are you on here somewhere? You know who you are. :D

  33. carlie says

    I’ve seen many student drawings, beautifully rendered and realistically shaded, of air bubbles. Drawing skills =/= understanding. It’s about the process of noticing what’s there and going “huh, what’s that?” while you’re trying to depict it.

    I was shocked a couple of years ago when students started holding their smartphones up to the eyepieces to get documentation of what they were looking at, even more so when it turned out ok. I definitely might try making one of these to keep in lab. I do now keep my Coolpix with me during labs to take pics of what they’re looking at to post for them later.

  34. wpjoe says

    A grad student and I published some photos of bacterial colonies a couple of years ago as part of a bacterial genetics paper. I asked her how she got such nice photos, since we didn’t have a camera connected to a microscope in the lab, and she said “Well I just held the camera up to the eyepiece…”

  35. ChasCPeterson says

    I’ve seen many student drawings, beautifully rendered and realistically shaded, of air bubbles.

    heh. Like horses and water, eh?

  36. kreativekaos says

    Found this about a week ago on Instructables. Cool to see it posted on Pharygula.
    When it comes to off-the-shelf/gonzo innovation,.. spread the word!

  37. ChasCPeterson says

    I guess that’s why it’s always ‘Van Morrison’, never just ‘Morrison’.
    You learn something new every day!

  38. Al Dente says

    Ludwig van Beethoven would insist on the “van”. However in his case it’s likely he wanted the Germans to think he was a “von”, i.e., nobility.

  39. carlie says

    I had a couple of pieces of leftover Duraplex from when I made storm windows last year that I think would work great for this. I’m going to be mad if I gave in to my spouse’s demands for cleaning out the place at the annual Trash Day and got rid of them – can’t remember. I’ll have to go look around today.

  40. David Marjanović says

    A grad student and I published some photos of bacterial colonies a couple of years ago as part of a bacterial genetics paper. I asked her how she got such nice photos, since we didn’t have a camera connected to a microscope in the lab, and she said “Well I just held the camera up to the eyepiece…”

    I’ve made plenty of photos of fossils by very carefully holding a digital camera at just the right distance from one eyepiece of a binocular microscope. Some of the photos are of publishable quality, and the others are mostly still informative enough.

  41. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Drawing is like singing or dancing. If you can speak, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance. If you can manipulate a pencil, you can draw. Often times, how well one does these things is irrelevant to the value of doing them.

  42. johnmarley says

    I saw this on the Instructibles site the other day. It’s nice to see that it isn’t all Halloween costumes. Every now and then there’s some really good stuff.

  43. Karen Locke says

    I’m with the make-them-draw crew. It doesn’t matter how good the drawing is, it forces one to really look at the object. I hated drawing in invertebrate paleontology, but it forced me to really look at those fossils and get a sense of shape and function.

    It’s sad there’s no way to make a cheap geologic microscope. But optics are everything when looking at rocks.

  44. carlie says

    I hated drawing in invertebrate paleontology,

    Not much to that – blob, sometimes with legs. :)

    Although it’s important to draw to learn, I am so glad of the advances in modern microphotography. I shudder to think of having a species description be tied to a drawing I did of it. And I nearly cried of happiness the first time I experienced photoshop contrast manipulation.

  45. saganite says

    I actually have a broken old laser pointer lying around somewhere… if I find it, I’ll definitely try and make this!

  46. says

    A bazzilion thanks, PZ, for posting this. I had a defunct laser pointer in my desk, and I was about to throw it away. And now I have a digital microscope.

    This is just amazing in its simplicity. If I were pursuing my teaching career, I would be thrilled with this, since teachers around here are generally fighting for each dime in their budget. I am going to send link to that video to my teaching friends.

    I liked drawing things seen througt the microscope on the high school and later at the university. I am reasonably skilled as an artist, so it was something I could excel at. Nevertheless, time is money and I think that labeling a photograph would be just as usefull for learning the stuff needed, without the furstration some of my somewhad heavy-handed schoolmates experienced.

  47. carlie says

    Caution – I just extracted the lens from a cheap laser pointer, and it was much harder than it looked. Perhaps more expensive ones would be easier to use, but this one was plastic all glued together, so I had to cut through it and pry it apart to get the lens out. I cut myself. It took over 20 minutes. Blargh. But now it’s free.

  48. Amphiox says

    I am with those who hold that students should be encouraged to sketch what they see. We’re not talking about Van Gogh’s here. Circles, ovals and squiggly lines will get you through most of cell and invertebrate biology. It doesn’t even have to be to scale or proportion, just properly labeled and with the correct relationships. ie the nuclei must be *inside* the cell membranes and so forth.

    It is an excellent study/memorization tool as well, since it engages the motor system, which is not often utilized with most forms of studying, and the more disparate aspects of your central nervous system you engage in the task, the easier it will stick.

    Back in my med school and residency days, I would try to diagram everything, and sing while I was drawing (in private, of course….).

  49. ekwhite says

    Very cool apparatus. In these days when blowing shit up gets unlimited funding, but science education gets damned little, it is nice to have some ingenious fixes like this.

    I had to draw things in college, but I think that taking photos and accurately labeling what you see should be allowed. Tedious drawing does require you to look carefully at what you see, but for those of us with damned poor hand – eye coordination, being able to take a photograph would be a great benefit. Labeling a photograph correctly should demonstrate an understanding of the structures being studied, and that is the point, isn’t it.

  50. darwinharmless says

    Built it. Love it. Materials list came to $21. Managed to take some really cool pictures of a bug that has been eating alder around my place. A tiny bug. Thanks for this.

  51. carlie says

    Summary of my build:

    Total cost to me was $6.50; $2.75 for the laser pointer, $3.75 for the nuts and bolts and washers. I had everything else I needed already. No spade bit to make the countersink holes, but I used a wood chisel and that worked fine. I also added some nonskid stick-on buttons to the bottom (that I also had already). I haven’t added an LED light to the bottom, because I’ll be using it in the lab and we have separate dissecting scope light sources we can use if needed.

    I’ve been testing it out this morning with various people and their cell phones, and we’re all having focusing problems. The optimal focal distance seems to be just a hair shorter than the shortest distance possible between the plates with the nut inbetween. That can be fixed by making the plexiglass “specimen holder” piece, because that will add some height internally (right now I just have the two bolted in pieces). I’m thinking of putting a bit of felt on the edges of the “specimen holder” piece when I make it also, both to make it slide more easily and to add a little more height to it to allow more play in the focal distance. The specimen stage piece of plexiglass is larger than the one in the video just because that was the size of the piece I had left and I didn’t want to do another cut, but there’s a bit of a wobble problem there now; it doesn’t sit quite as easily level even though it’s centered on the bolts. So I’d suggest making that bottom plexiglass piece just as wide as it needs to be in order to seat specimens well, no wider.

    The other problem I’m having is with the curvature of the lens. The cheapest laser pointer I found was a combo pointer and flashlight, so I wonder if my lens is a bit smaller in diameter than one in a simple laser pointer. It looks about the same size as the one in the video, but a tiny increase in diam. would be a significant benefit in fixing the aberration. Mine was just larger than 9/64″, so I used that sized drill bit and then a file to enlarge it just enough to fit the lens.
    (for a specific kind of reference: I used a Helianthus stem xs slide, and the whole thing could fit in the field of view of the cameras but when the pith was in focus, the vascular bundles and cortex were not)

    Seems fun, though, and I’ll let my students play with it in lab this week.