Microscopes are synonymous with fancy science laboratories and advanced scientific discoveries. They are seemingly out of reach for elementary schools with tight budgets and young learners. Even if teachers do have access to these devices at the elementary level, they may hesitate to use them because they haven’t had training on using the intimidating instrument and learn the art of microscopy.

However, the art of microscopy is amazing, and for a small amount of money, these hidden worlds can help students see that there is more to our environment than just what they see with their own eyes. A microscope can also be a useful tool when integrating art, as there is a natural connection in the history of their use.

The Art of Microscopy, Education Closet

Pollen, captured by a Scanning Electron Microscope

A Bit of History

The microscope was invented by Zacharias Janssen, a 16th-century eyeglass maker. Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, however, is the most well-known scientist to use microscopes to make scientific observations and discoveries. He communicated his observations with sketches of what he saw under the microscope, but because he did not consider himself a skilled artist, he collaborated with artists of the 1600s to illustrate the microscopic images for him. Another notable connection to the art world is Ernst Haeckel, who was a German biologist and artist in the late 1800s, known for precisely drawing his scientific observations from under his microscope. Through this work, he was able to prove that single-celled organisms existed, and produced amazing art in the process.

Scientific Art by Ernst Haeckel

Art of Microscopy is Affordable!

At the elementary level (or in an art classroom), there are a number of affordable, realistic options for using microscopes. In addition, these options are meant for using in the field, which means students are not tied to a science lab, and the devices are not as fragile. Both options can be found for about $6.50 per microscope.

The first option is a hand-held microscope. With this small microscope, students can explore anything they choose by placing the lens of the microscope flat down onto the object. It is great for magnifying grains of salt, sand, or sugar, as well as colored newspaper print. (This would be great for a lesson on pointillism!) Students could also take it out on a nature walk to magnify leaves or other found objects. Find one option for purchasing here.

The second option is a small device that clamps onto the camera lens of an iPhone or iPad. Once it is in place, students use it in the same manner as the other handheld microscope, except instead of focusing and zooming on the actual microscope, students use the camera from the iPad to zoom. In addition, students can snap a picture of their magnified object. These range in price, and as expected, the more expensive the microscope the more quality/clear magnification you get. I have used the cheapest option, and it is decent. Find purchasing options here.

Organizing Observations

Students have a blast exploring with these microscopes. I keep them in a plastic tub, and students frequently grab them to use during indoor recess. To do a more formal observation, I have students make homemade slides with paper and clear tape. Making slides in this manner allows students to write on the paper to label their specimen, and gives them space to draw what they observe under the microscope. They can use their drawings to compare how basic things, such as sugar and salt, that look similar to the naked eye are very different when magnified. Teacher directions on creating these slides can be found here, however, the concept is very simple:

  1. Students fold an index card in half and cut a small triangle in the center of the fold. When the card is unfolded, students will be left with a diamond in the center of their card.
  2. Then, students should place a piece of clear tape over the diamond on one side of the card so that the sticky part shows through.
  3. Students should sprinkle or place their specimen on the sticky part of the tape, and then seal it in place with another piece of clear tape. Note: The generic form of Scotch tape works better than Invisible Scotch tape since it is transparent and shiny, allowing students to see through it clearly.

This is just the beginning of what can be done with microscopes at the elementary level. This summer, I will post some inquiry-based lesson plans that use microscopes to address and integrate NGSS and National Arts Standards. Have you used microscopes at the elementary level or in an art class? Share what you’ve done in the comments section below!

Resources For Art Of Microscopy

For students: https://educators.brainpop.com/bp-topic/microscopes/

Origami microscopes: http://www.hometrainingtools.com/a/microscope-experiments/#MakeSimpleSlideshttp://www.wired.com/2014/03/paper-microscope/

History: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/van_leeuwenhoek_antonie.shtmlhttp://gizmodo.com/how-17th-century-artists-helped-make-the-microscopic-wo-1736249872,  http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/29646/title/Chasing-Haeckel/