ROCHESTER, Minn. — Many remember that moment of discovery when they looked through the lens of a microscope in science class and saw a whole new world.
The challenge is that most school districts can afford only a few pricey microscopes, giving kids short views of that new world amid lectures about being careful with the equipment.
What if schools had access to inexpensive, rugged microscopes that every student could take home to experiment with in the woods, by a pond or in their backyard?
That's the question that led a local science education group and a Rochester business to create a high quality "lunch box" microscope that costs $250 instead of the typical $2,000 to $5,000.
Generating excitement and curiosity in K-12 students is the goal of Integrated Science Education Outreach or InSciEd Out, a Rochester group that has created its own science curriculum. InSciEd Out began in 2009 as a collaboration of Mayo Clinic, Winona State University-Rochester, and Rochester Public Schools. Its curriculum, which launched at the Lincoln K-8 District-Wide School, uses zebra fish for students to study in a variety of experiments.
InSciEd Out has since grown beyond Minnesota's borders with seven educational "hubs" including ones in Chicago, India and Ghana.
In recent years, InSciEd Out organizers realized they had a problem. The cost of microscopes for the new hubs was prohibitive. They started experimenting with a 3D-printed design for a new microscope, but the project stalled.
That changed when Chad Attlesey and Adam Salmi with Area 10 Labs became involved. After about a year of talking and working on a pro bono basis, they had a design.
"We hope to give students that moment of discovery that they will remember for the rest of their lives," Attlesey told the Post Bulletin . "We want to help them learn something first hand, on their own, rather than on YouTube."
In a cluttered workspace above the Bleu Duck Kitchen restaurant, they created a portable microscope that disassembles into eight pieces that can be stored in a case that also serves as its base. The microscope can be easily assembled in about a minute.
The Wi-Fi enabled microscope can link up with tablets or laptops to show and capture the images seen under the lens. It comes with a re-chargeable battery that doesn't need to be directly plugged into an outlet. The light source is a small LED bulb powered by AA batteries.
If broken, most of the plastic parts can be replaced with a 3-D-printed part made at the school. That means a microscope isn't taken out of class for expensive repair if a case latch gets broken by a rambunctious student.
Area 10 recently started a new company, MindTech, to drive project development. Progressive Tool & Manufacturing of Pine Island was contracted to make the plastic parts for 250 of the devices by the end of 2017.
"It is a nice looking product. It was already was a good design," said John Lodermeier of PTM. "We made them in two different colors and did some pad printing (of logos) on them,"
The first microscopes are now "in the wilds" of middle school classrooms in Chicago and India.
"The kids really like it," Michael Ekker of InSciEd Out said. "We had microscope shortages and often had only one microscope in a classroom. Now we have four to eight in each classroom."
Being able to dismantle them into a portable carrying case means teachers can stack five or more in the space it takes to store one standard microscope.
"By having a less expensive microscope to do this, people are less afraid and so there is so much more accessibility integrated with our wonderful teacher-written science modules," said Dr. Steve Ekker of Mayo Clinic and InSciEd Out. "There's a lot of interest in this. There's really a high-quality microscope condensed into that lunchbox."
The MindTech team is now waiting for notes to come back from users before it makes any necessary tweaks before the next order.
"The goal long-term is to bring the price down to $100 per microscope. We would love to get them in the hands of every student," Attlesey said.
Area 10 and MindTech would also like to commercialize the microscope to reach broader markets, like possibly veterinary science, through direct retail sales.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Post Bulletin.