LegoScope: Microscopy for the People

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Although microscopes make minuscule objects and details clear to the eye, understanding them can be an obscure and mysterious process. In order to demystify the microscope, teach optics at a tangible level, and implement novel brainstorming and design-thinking approaches, UCSF graduate students Harrison Liu (Bioengineering), Michael Sachs (Biomedical Sciences) and Reid Williams (Biophysics) created LegoScope.

LegoScope is a DIY microscope made of Legos, lenses and a few custom-made pieces. With LegoScope, young students and microscope enthusiasts can design custom microscopes, take and save photos, and discover the basic principles of optics and microscopy.

What’s the story behind LegoScope?

Williams: The three of us were part of an experimental class and collaboration between IDEO, a design firm in Palo Alto, and UCSF. There’s a whole culture around product design, and the idea was that we would learn about IDEO’s approach and see how it’s different from academia.

We started with Cellscope, a cellphone-enabled microscope developed by Dr. Dan Fletcher at UC Berkeley. The goal was to take Cellscope and use Design Thinking approaches to change it and make it applicable anywhere where microscopy could be useful.

Liu: What we were trying to learn was a different way of thinking and approaching projects, and the result was LegoScope. Essentially, what we wanted to see was what happens if we take Design Thinking and apply it to scientific problems. Now that we have this thing, what are we going to do with it?

Why do we need to improve lessons about microscopes?

Liu: Everyone uses microscopes. It’s the cornerstone of modern biology. But the thing is, everyone just uses microscopes, and no one really understands how they work. In reality, microscopes are simple. The reason no one understands them is because you can’t take them apart.

Teachers that we interviewed said that you can draw diagrams of rays on the board as much as you want, but when you give kids the chance to play around with something, they can learn about it much quicker and better than just solving equations on the board.

How can LegoScope help students learn?

Williams: It’s not what you’re teaching, but how are you teaching. What’s really interesting for us, and what we’ve heard from teachers, is that there’s an advantage to teaching in a very hands-on, process-orientated fashion.

The underlying need that we’re working towards is learning something by putting together a tool rather than watching someone lecture.

Williams: If you are teaching the fifth to eighth grades, LegoScope can help incorporate a more intuitive feel for optics, or just for building and systems-thinking in general.

Students would take away more than microscopy and optics, but also the more intangible aspects, like an intuitive understanding of how light behaves. It can be a very powerful exercise.

Liu: A microscope is seen almost like a “black box,” yet we can take it apart and see how it works with LegoScope. When you build something, take you can take ownership of it, you really learn it well. You have to learn what each part does. It’s different from normal teaching.

What has helped LegoScope and you guys achieve success so quickly?

Liu: We focused on a “human-centric” design, which is IDEO’s approach. Part of the human-centric approach is that you don’t go into a project with a set of preconceptions. We go in and find out exactly what people want.

Sachs: Going on observations and interviews. We wanted to observe users of what we were going to make … except we didn’t have a goal audience yet. We interviewed histologists, high school teachers and doctors with Doctors Without Borders.

In between vastly different users, there were common threads, such as the desire to open up the mystery of microscopy and to better teach <pls check this insertion>about how microscopes work to students.

Williams: We came up with our first prototype in about one hour. A tangible prototype gives people a feeling of how the product could work. You can get a feeling of whether the design of something will work, without it being technically functional. You get the user experience first, and then solve the technical problems.

Liu: Instead of waiting for the “perfect” product and then showing it to the customer, we took an early prototype to them. We keep going back to get feedback and changing the design based on the feedback.

What’s next for LegoScope?

Sachs: Design a lesson plan and to try LegoScope with students. We want to take it into classrooms. We’ve done demos at the California Academy of Sciences and the Bay Area Science Festival, where hundreds of kids loved it. We want to recreate a community around DIY microscopy.

Our next steps are to find a way to communicate to people effectively — hobbyists, parents, enthusiasts and educators — and provide them with a platform where they can learn more, contribute and share back.

LegoScope is highly modular and modifiable. By swapping out one of the lenses, you can make it into a telescope.

Williams: We have two directions. One, we want to release what we have so far so that anyone in the world who wants to build one, can. This includes CAD files, video instructions and a parts list.

 Pretty soon, we’re going to post that on our website ( And simultaneously, we’re going to start working with teachers and going into classrooms. And there will be two versions: a “homescope” for parents and hobbyists and another for educators.

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