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EnLightenment: Smartphone microscopes for interdiscplinary learning in schools

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EnLightenment Project

‘EnLightenment: Build it, See it, Show it’ designed and supplied smartphone microscope kits for >100 high schools across Scotland, with a focus on S1-S2 pupils. Funded by a Wellcome Trust people award, and supported by EPSRC and Heriot-Watt University, Enlightenment has been a huge success. The kits, provided to the schools for free and designed by the EnLightenment team, allowed pupils to explore the microscopic world down to the sub-cellular level using any standard smartphone.

Designed to work in parallel with the Scottish curriculum for excellence, the programme brought microscopy, physics, biology and technical principles to thousands of students across the country and supported this with a series of teacher and pupil resources and lesson plans. To maximize engagement, pupils entered a national imaging competition, uploading their best images to a custom open-access educational website ( With over 500 entries, the website attracted over 20,000 unique page views.

Winning pupils, selected by an expert panel of scientists, artists and public engagement experts, were awarded prizes by Prof. Jim Al-Khalili at the closing ceremony of Illuminations in December 2015, following on from a launch event at Dynamic Earth, attended by 125 teachers. A series of public lectures and demonstrations, culminating in the largest of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre ‘Innovation Nation’ series of talks, supported the programme, and brought the EnLightenment message to the widest possible audience.

  • Project aims
    • The Enlightenment team set out to formulate an exciting and fun national public engagement programme that brings cutting edge microscopy to early secondary stage pupils, without compromising on the scientific message. The specific aim was to demonstrate to late primary / early secondary school-age children of broad economic background the importance of inter-disciplinary science, the beauty of biological images and the combination of cell biology and optical physics - as well as illustrating that physics is ‘not just for boys’.

      We had a particular focus on reaching audience groups perhaps not normally attracted to public outreach events. We targeted specific schools from SIMD40 index areas to ensure diversity in our reach, and received competition entries from these schools.
  • Audience
    • The primary audience was school pupils, aged 11-12 years old (first year of secondary school). Secondary audiences included teachers, parents, and colleagues at other university.
  • How it started
    • In 2011, we developed our smartphone microscopes from an online resource, creating a bespoke version allowing high resolution and high magnification images. This was motivated by the cumbersome nature of microscopes, which we have taken to science festivals for many years. By developing the platform smartphone microscopes, we could simply and clearly demonstrate the physics of microscopy to a range of ages. The kits also encouraged creative thinking and engineering concepts; kits included multiple parts which could be used in various ways to build the perfect microscope. Through our networks, we formed a partnership with the Scottish Schools Education Resource Centre, and a schoolteacher who had been working on a similar premise. Together, we designed a kit appropriate for use in schools, aligned to the curriculum, with supporting lesson plans and presentations.

      We then sourced funding to enable us to disseminate kits to as many schools as possible, with the kits designed to allow value for money without compromising on the image quality and ease of use.
  • Partnerships
    • Partnerships were established with public facing venues, including Edinburgh International Science Festival, RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, Dynamic Earth, Glasgow Science Festival and Midlothian Festivals. These built on existing links through the university, and are being further developed. In particular, our partnership with Edinburgh Zoo has led to the kits being taken to primary schools across Scotland as part of their Wild About Scotland Bus Tour.

      These partnerships allowed the microscopes to be shared with the secondary audience, both at the beginning of the project to source teachers, and following the competition, to share the images. Links with the Institute of Physics and the Society of Biology allowed the 'Call for Interest' to be disseminated from a trusted source to all schools across Scotland.

      Funding was sourced from the Wellcome Trust, EPSRC and Heriot-Watt University. We also obtained discounts from many of the suppliers involved in the kits, in particular, Gratnells, who supplied the kit boxes. The project was also run in parallel with the International Year of Light, with events throughout the year bringing together multiple projects. In particular, the Heriot-Watt-organised Explorathon at Edinburgh Zoo showcased the microscopes to thousands of children, with 500 free tickets for socio-economically deprived groups funded by the Carnegie Foundation.
  • What did you do?
    • We built smartphone microscope kits, with each kit contained 5 of the perspex components, lenses, screws and bolts. This was supported by educational resources online, including a video created by a school pupil, and instructions. The kits were designed to allow creative thinking. These were sent to schools across Scotland, and the pupils encouraged to upload images to a bespoke website, to win a prize (£1000 for the school's science budget and an iPad for winning pupil). Pupils were encouraged to be creative, bringing together arts, biology and physics.

      Throughout the year, we went to a range of science festivals and undertook school visits, to show the microscopes, and talk about the research of the group (which focuses on super resolution microscopy, and its use in biological diagnostics and preventions).

      A panel of judges chose the winning images, with prizes awarded at an event at Heriot-Watt University. The event celebrated the closing of the International Year of Light, with a light show, science festival element, art-science exhibition and science talk.

      The project was co-led by a physicist, a biologist and a public engagement coordinator, with a team of enthusiastic volunteers to disseminate the research and engage with the schools and public. Phase 2 of the project is being developed, with further funding from the University to create next generation kits based on feedback from schools. We are also aiming to develop it as a transition project, as we have had numerous requests from primary schools.
  • Evaluation
    • Evaluation was a priority and a well thought out strategy was in place from project inception. All schools obtained kits with the agreement of completing feedback forms. To encourage this all submitting schools were entered into a pool, where 3 winners received personal visits from the EnLightenment team. The process worked and feedback return was strong. Feedback has been outstanding, with extremely positive written feedback and with a score of 4/5 or 5/5 from 88% of returns. Feedback on the construction of the microscopes has been fed into the next generation model, to make it easier to use. Five primary schools were also sent kits, for them to assess their appropriateness to a younger audience. School visits are being conducted ahead of further funding applications.

      Our evaluation also asked the Heriot-Watt University helpers (staff and student) to reflect on what they had learned; all responded positively that they had acquired transferable skills. All volunteers had positive responses, and had learnt a great deal about communicating with different ages. An away-day also allowed the brainstorming of ideas, one of which will be used in next years Edinburgh International Science Festival.
  • Key lessons learnt
    • The key learning outcome was that teachers' enthusiasm about the project is key to success. Making the process as easy as possible for them (e.g. lesson plans, visits, easy storage), and giving them an incentive, was crucial to the kits being used in schools. Additionally, the time commitment from the team was more than anticipated, but very worthwhile.

      If we ran the project again, we would aim for more feedback from teachers, by additional visits and focus groups. The timing of the project could also have been better - we launched in May 2015, which was swiftly followed by the school summer term, in which teachers were out of contact. The kits also took longer to complete than anticipated; the longer the teacher has to fit it into their lesson planning the better.
  • Keys to making it work
    • ~ Keep the messages simple, and do as much for the teachers as you can.
      ~ Incentivise the outcome you want (i.e. prizes for uploading images).
      ~ Make use of networks already established, rather than cold-calling schools. We did both, and got much better uptake from the former.

For further information, please contact Dr Laura Wicks, Public Engagement Coordinator at Heriot-Watt University, via or 0131 451 3446.