Pathways students put homemade smartphone microscopes to test at Yale Farm

Yale professor Ziad Ganim with students from the  Pathways to Science Summer Scholars program at Yale Farm.
Yale professor Ziad Ganim (right, in checkered shirt) with students from the Pathways to Science Summer Scholars program at Yale Farm. (Photo credit: Noah Vaca)

A group of high school students met Yale’s Ziad Ganim at the Yale Farm’s Lazarus Pavilion on a hot Friday morning. There, they found a large table containing various samples of compost, stinging nettle, and fungus-infected tomato leaves from around the farm. The previous day, the students had built their own microscopes by gluing lenses to paper tubes, which they placed over the camera lenses of their smartphones. With the glue dry and the lenses set in place, it was finally time for them to test out their homemade microscopes.

Through Yale’s Pathways to Science Summer Scholars program, Ganim, an associate professor of chemistry at Yale, teaches a course for high school students who show a particular interest in chemistry and microscopy. Ganim is the first of his family to go to college and his parents were immigrants from Iraq, so he says he can relate to his Pathways to Science students, who represent diverse backgrounds. “Now, being a professor at Yale, it’s not something that I imagined I would be doing when I was growing up, and it feels very fulfilling to be able to make statements like that and see the students’ reactions,” said Ganim.

I think a lot of people who grew up around Yale have a certain opinion of it — that maybe it’s an elite place, maybe it’s not for everybody if you didn’t grow up in a certain way,” Ganim explained. “By having students come and see what scientists are like, that some of us don’t have backgrounds that are that different from them, I think that part is most important for them just to know, ‘Okay, I could do this.’”

The Pathways to Science Summer Scholars program is a free two-week summer science program held annually and hosted by Yale faculty for high school students from New Haven, West Haven, and Orange public schools; this year it ran July 15-27. Students could either apply to the program or be nominated by a science or math teacher from their high school. The students chose from a number of courses and had classes at a number of different settings, including undergraduate teaching labs.

Yale Farm’s Adam Houston working with Pathways to Science students.
Yale Farm’s Adam Houston offers insight on a stinging nettle leaf. (Photo credit: Noah Vaca)

Recent Yale graduate and summer intern at the Yale Farm, Adam Houston, explained that the farm serves as a physical base for academic instruction with a goal to bridge the gap between academic experiences and field experiences.

Ganim and the students began their time by finishing up a previous discussion on the various wavelengths of light in what Ganim referred to as a sort of “scientific conference.” Some students proposed futuristic applications for the different types of light — such as using infrared radiation to locate extraterrestrial life, and even developing “UV triggered DNA repair” to protect against overexposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Due to the course’s focus on microscopy, Ganim wanted to leave the students with something they could use out in the real world just as they did in the Yale labs, so the affordable yet effective homemade microscopes were perfect, he said. When building their homemade microscopes, the students also learned how to correctly distance and place the lenses in the tubes for the best results. Throughout their session at the farm, they expressed awe and curiosity as they used their microscopes. They examined samples of soil for nematodes (worms) and formic acid hairs on stinging nettles among other things.

Ziad Ganim and a Pathways student look through homemade smartphone microscopes at Yale Farm.
(Photo credit: Noah Vaca)

Some students even worked together to prop up small planks of wood to create a structure allowing other smartphones to shine their flashlights on a single sample, while another student used one of their homemade microscopes to examine the now well-lit material.

Ganim eagerly helped the students find what they were looking for in their microscopes, even providing his own USB microscope to keep feeding the students’ curiosity. At one point, he commended a student on their patience while focusing the microscope, calling it “the perfect trait to have as a scientist.”

Ganim says he hopes that the homemade smartphone microscopes will encourage the high school students to examine something outside of a window the way they did during the program. “There are certain parts of New Haven, like the green areas, and now they know, ‘Okay, it’s just like in class, I can go and see what’s there like it’s in my backyard.’’”

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