As I strapped my sniffling 2-year-old daughter into her car seat after yet another visit to the urgent care for an ear infection, her older brother lobbed the familiar questions at me: “Dad, why is she sick again? What’s in her ears?” I trotted out the same old simplified explanation about germs, but as always, he looked bewildered. Explaining that there are tiny animals all around that you can’t see ... makes about as much sense to a 5-year-old as, well, magic.
That’s when I had a eureka moment: Why try to explain it to him when I can just show him. I ordered a $69 Amscope microscope, $45 attachable digital camera, and some slide-making materials off Amazon that night. When the box arrived a couple of days later, I immediately thought of the tagline from the Six Million Dollar Man: We have the technology.
And, happily, it’s technology you don’t need to have a Ph.D. to figure out. The Amscope’s setup is simple: The microscope plugs into the wall and illuminates the slide area. There are three lenses with clearly marked magnifications, as well as two different eyepieces that you can attach if you’d like go analog and peer into the scope itself. I wanted to show the kiddo the microscopic world on the big screen, however, so I removed the eyepiece and plugged in the digital camera, which then attaches to a computer (or television) via USB cable. After that, it’s a matter of installing the Amscope app and getting started. Mine connected right away, and we were immediately staring at a live view of the microscope slide on the laptop.
Which gets us to the hardest part of our grand scientific experiment: slide-making. More of an art than a science, it’s kind of tricky. My advice: buy some premade slides first just so you have something to look at right out of the gate. If you’re determined to do it yourself, though, buy some blank slides and slide covers and start by finding something simple to look at.
We got the ball rolling with table salt. I started out by asking him what he thought salt looked like, had him feel a few crystals in his hand, and then asked him to make a prediction about what it would look like when we zoomed in with the scope. The lesson quickly got his attention, and I enjoyed being able to go full-on Bill Nye.
He was pretty shocked when he saw that the salt grains were basically little cubes — just like Legos. We used the Amscope camera to snap a photo and shared it with Grandma on Facebook. Our next adventures in microscoping involved peering at the surface of a maple leaf and zooming in on a fruit fly (regrettably sacrificed for science) and its almost-alien eye. When he saw that eye up close on the screen, he screamed take a picture! He was hooked.
Now, we make microscope hunts a weekly event. The Amscope weighs 3.6 pounds so it’s easy to take on the go. It uses three AA-batteries if you don’t have access to electricity in “the field,” I try to preview things ahead of time to ensure the subject is interesting and easy enough to see, but our latest endeavors have included more than a few wriggling microorganisms that had me scrambling online to try to identify. It’s those discoveries — and the fun of never knowing what you’ll find in the “invisible zoo” — that has kept my son, and yes, me, occupied week after week. Not only that, but now he finally understands why his sister keeps coming down with those damn ear infections.