Easy Science for Kids: Microscopy

microscopy02.jpg

It’s often quite difficult for parents to get their kids interested in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which are profoundly useful in later life. They are skills that are in high demand when it comes to employment and so by having them under their belt, potential employers will look more favourably towards them.

The issue is that kids like hands-on activities; they like to experience the world around them, but STEM subjects can seem too abstract or monotonous for children to appreciate.

This doesn’t have to be the case, as an appreciation for science is an appreciation for the natural world. Creating activities around the love of nature and guiding your children is also a great activity that you can do with them not to mention fill up hours of school holiday time as well.

A great way to do this and encourage an interest or even a passion for science is with Microscopy.

Microscopy Garners an Interest in Science

Microscopy is practical and inspiring, it allows children to get involved by obtaining samples that they would like to investigate themselves and then be visually rewarded for doing so. They can take a much closer look at the smaller elements that compose stuff from the world around them; such as plants, textiles, stones, insects, cells and other materials.

It’s particularly great for kids because it requires them to be creative, intuitive and active. They may wish to gather samples when on a family outing, or you can plan a trip to the park not just to use the playground, but also to bring home samples to observe under their microscope, to compare the different structural compositions of similar objects.

It doesn’t have to be complicated either, children from all age groups, no matter their current understanding of science can enjoy peering down a microscope. In fact, as they grow and go through school, they will have an easier time grasping concepts such as “the cell” as they can relate it back to what they have seen themselves at home.

Starting a Kid Out in Microscopy

Microscope Kits

Kid’s microscope kits are the most common place to start, and while not being the full microscope experience, these kits are inexpensive and a good indicator of whether or not your child has any interest in continuing the hobby.

The microscope kits that you can buy for children usually come with a small, basic microscope and some pre-prepared microscope slides to get the child looking down the microscope at samples right away. Some even include blank slides and some tools to help them create their own.

USB Microscopes

There is however, a better approach that only costs marginally more, but this does depend on how much you are willing to spend. A USB microscope. These microscopes connect to a computer or laptop and project the image of the sample onto the screen.

This is the easiest and most user friendly option as less skill is involved with working the microscope itself. It allows the images to be easily saved with colour, which can create some wonderful microscope art.

Pocket Microscopes

The easiest and most affordable method of microscopy, which technically is not real microscopy, is the use of a pocket microscope. These microscopes are great as they can be used in the field and are so small they can be carried in your pocket.

For children this means having the experience of taking a close up look at living samples in the natural world when out on field trips. For a fun activity, they can also sketch what they see with their microscope and compare samples.

Some pocket microscopes also attach to a smart phone, allowing you to take and save pictures of the image produced by the pocket microscope on your phone. These images can later be blown up on a computer to create some cool art. Great for school projects!

Compound and Stereo Microscopes

These are the traditional, professional microscopes that you would find in a lab. For the purposes of introducing a child to microscopy, they don’t have to be the most expensive but it will cost somewhat more than kids microscope kit or a USB microscope.

The benefit of taking this route is your child gets the full microscope experience, which includes preparing their own slides and operating the microscope. Both of which takes some practice before decent results are achieved.

There are some very easy microscope projects for children that can be done however, which produce observable results without too much work, such as observing onion cells.

For microscope photography, a microscope camera, which is a separate piece of kit, can be attached to a compound microscope through one of the eye pieces. They allow you to take high resolution photographs of very small samples without suffering a loss in image quality.

Plant Cells under a microscope

Plant Cells under a microscope

Getting Over the First Hurdles

Microscopy can be frustrating for a beginner, especially a young child (and even for parents who haven’t used a microscope since school science) who may be more inclined to give up on the hobby if results are never produced when they try. This is why kids microscope kits, pocket microscopes and USB microscopes are probably the best options as they are easier to use.

The two main hurdles when it comes to amateur microscopy are:

Operating the microscope – Using the microscope controls to focus and produce a clear image when in a particular magnification

Preparing slides – This can be difficult and finicky sometimes, especially with more advanced samples that require staining.

This is where you come in. Children can get frustrated and disenfranchised when they feel they can’t achieve any results and so you need to be there to encourage them and help them.

You don’t have to be a professional microscope operator in order to produce fantastic images, all you need is patience, practise and focus. Make sure to read guides on how to operate the microscope and how to prepare slides and the rest will come in no time.

You can then pass what you have learned onto your kid who can start to develop their skills in microscopy, refine their understanding of the world around them, appreciate the complexities of nature and maybe even develop an interest in photography.