Researching Prototyping and STEM Education

“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.”
Malcolm Gladwell

Microscopes are an essential piece of scientific equipment they gave us the ability to view parts of the world that we can’t see otherwise.  The invention of the microscope lead directly to germ theory which revolutionized healthcare. Throughout my career I’ve done a lot with microscopes; research, teach, maintenance, and I’ve even worked with a group to make them remote controlled.

Microscopes can also be extremely expensive, I worked with a microscope that cost a million dollars, and some microscopes cost more than that. Microscopes are particularly crucial in pathology and medical diagnostics. Which in some cases can be a problem; the cost of microscopes can be limiting in some areas of the world.

Take for instance sub-Saharan Africa; malaria is one of the most common causes of death due to illness in this region. According to the CDC 90% of all the worlds malaria-related deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa. Which is sad because malaria is completely treatable especially if identified early. The problem is malaria can present like the flu. Without going to it all the reasons the only way to conclusively diagnose an active malaria infection is by a stained blood smear observed under a microscope.

In the United States, this is not a problem if your local medical office doesn’t have a diagnostic lab; one is available within a few hours by medical courier. However, in places like sub-Saharan Africa diagnostics labs can be prohibitively expensive and far out of reach. A basic diagnostic microscope is going to cost several thousand dollars; a clinical centrifuge will also cost a couple of thousand dollars. In addition to the cost, this equipment can be difficult to transport and set-up.  The diagnostic equipment also requires electricity something that is not commonly available. So, you also need a generator and fuel.

In addition to malaria, poverty severely impacts sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank in 2015, 66.3% of the population live on $3.20 a day or less $1160 a year, 84.5% lived on $2007.50 or less a year.  One of the effects of poverty is a lack of infrastructure which makes it difficult to access many areas. 

A potential solution to this problem came from Dr. Manu Prakash an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford. In 2014 his group developed the Foldscope a small microscope built from paper, an LED, watch battery, and spherical lens, it has magnification from 140X to 2000X. The Foldscope cost less than a dollar to make.

In 2017 his group developed the Paperfuge a hand-powered centrifuge with speeds of 125,000 RPM it costs about $0.20.

The Foldscope and Paperfuge don’t require power they’re small and easy to transport and we can easily replace them because of their low-cost. These pieces of paper can change diagnostics in remote regions drastically.

So, what do the Foldscope and Paperfuge have to do with STEM education?  Historically building, prototyping, and testing a new device was a long and expensive process. The cost limited the development of products to a few high-end research institution and large companies.  In today’s world of desktop manufacturing and prototyping, the cost to prototype has come down and is readily accessible to most schools and institutions.

With desktop tools available you can imagine building research/teaching programs around social and educational problems. On the educational side tools like the Foldscope and Paperfuge can be used by groups of students to do fieldwork.  Imagine taking groups of students out to a field site and giving all of them a microscope and centrifuge to do examinations.

Alternatively, we could use the Foldscope and Paperfuge as a model.  Schools and classes could partner with a community organization to develop tools to deal with problems and issues these organizations are facing. Students will start by learning the science behind the issues and the existing solution if there is one. Then as a laboratory component, students would use modern desktop manufacturing tools to design, prototype, and test solutions. We could adapt this type of program to any level of school. Additionally, they would combine science, engineering, and community service in one class.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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