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Science Honors Electron “Bugscope” Project with SPORE Award

An online project that puts access to an extremely powerful electron microscope into the hands of students all over the country has been selected by the journal Science to win the monthly Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).


Illustration of Bugscope’s live chat interaction. Students take control not only of the microscope but also of posing questions to experts. | Images © Science/AAAS

Called Bugscope, the project based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign allows students to explore their own bug samples magnified 20,000 times.


“We’re hopeful that this award will help provide a model for other, similar efforts to incorporate scientists’ technologies into teaching and learning via the Web,” said Umesh Thakkar, one of the developers of the project. “Bugscope uses the Web as a laboratory, so students and teachers can do their own scientific investigations.”

The journal Science developed the SPORE award to promote the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less-than-ideal conditions, into something new. In a similar way, these winning projects can be seen as the seeds of progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Each month, Science publishes an article by a recipient of the award which explains the winning project. The article about Bugscope is published on 29 July.

“Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science,” said Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts. “We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding online resources reach a wider audience. Each winning Web site will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to valuable free online resources.”

Umesh Thakkar

Thakkar earned a Ph.D. in instructional design and technology at Ohio State University, and in the late 1990s he became interested in conducting classroom investigations on the Web by remotely controlling state-of-the-art scientific equipment. The first project he became involved in was called Chickscope, which allowed students to interactively explore the development of chick embryos. That project also involved Nobel Laureate Paul Lauterbur, whose work had led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Use of MRI in Chickscope, however, ultimately required too much staffing and expense to be considered sustainable.

Thakkar then collaborated with scientist Clint Potter, who had begun work on Bugscope, which was deemed sustainable for use in classrooms from kindergarten to high school, and even at the college level.

Besides its sustainability, Bugscope had another appealing feature. Its area of scientific exploration is, of course, bugs, and the electron microscope blows them up to “creature feature” levels of magnification in a way that is irresistible to most kids.

“Bugscope connects with aspiring young scientists by relating to their fascination with bugs,” said Melissa McCartney, an editorial fellow at Science. “Observing the intricate detail of the specimens they submit at such a high magnification allows students to see firsthand how these creatures breathe, eat, and move.

“Teachers report that one session of Bugscope is enough to turn a student with an aversion to science into one who wonders how soon they can collect more specimens for inspection.”

The process for gaining access to Bugscope, which is completely free of charge, is intentionally quick and straightforward. The application takes less than 10 minutes. Each classroom proposes its own project, using its own samples, and the teacher simply provides a brief description of what the students would like to do. Once the process is completed, the class has remote control of a scientific instrument that costs more than $500,000.

“The goal is to treat the teacher, and the students through the teacher, as a scientific investigator,” said Thakkar.

Like in a real-life laboratory, scientists such as entomologists or microscopists are available to the student investigators during the real-time session with the microscope. The students direct the inquiry with their own questions. “Why are there ‘hairs’ on the insect?” one might ask.

Michele A. Korb

“When the students look at the insects’ features up close, they get so excited,” said Michele Korb, co-author of the SPORE essay. Korb has a Ph.D. in science education from Marquette University and has been working with Thakkar for 10 years to bring Bugscope to teachers in training. “I think it’s important for students to ask and answer their own questions,” Korb said. “Usually, they’re asked to answer someone else’s.”

“With Bugscope, they don’t listen passively,” said Thakkar. “They drive the experience.”

The idea, of course, is to provide a system of active learning and actual scientific inquiry, rather than filling students with facts and vocabulary. Thakkar and Korb refer to an effort in education to help students learn to gather and interpret their own scientific evidence and participate in scientific discourse. This is seen as a way to foster a better understanding of science generally, as well as to captivate future scientists and science educators. During the live sessions, the students often ask how they can prepare themselves to become scientists.

So far, more than 580 classrooms in 415 schools have used Bugscope, and students and teachers have acquired more than 120,000 images of bugs. The classrooms that have participated have been all over the country, from the inner city to remote rural schools, even in home schools.

Bugscope is one of the best examples of bringing real scientific technologies to the classroom in a truly meaningful way, said Korb. She added that the system is practical for teachers, because it is easily and quickly accessed, yet the level of investigation it provides is very sophisticated.

“Every time I do this with kids in classrooms,” she said, “the excitement is palpable.”


Visit the Bugscope, winner of this month’s SPORE award from the journal Science.

Learn more about using the Bugscope in teacher preparation programs.

Read the essay, “Facilitating Scientific Investigations and Training Data Scientists,” by Michele Korb and Umesh Thakkar.