On July 19 at Eternacon 2019, Manu Prakash and Rebecca Konte gave a wonderful demonstration of the Foldscope to the participants of the annual conference of the citizen scientist game Eterna. Rebecca provided two Foldscopes to me to give to my ex-husband and his 6-year-old son. Here I will relay what it was like to see a young child experience experimental science for the first time.
When I entered his house yesterday, I gave two colored bags containing the Foldscopes to my ex-husband’s son, saying that these were microscopes that allowed him to see really small things. Did he know what a microscope was? No. He began to list small things that the Foldscope might see. The smallest lego? I said, “Smaller.” His eyes got wide. He began to list other things, generally small pieces of toys, and I kept saying, “Smaller.” He became increasingly excited, while I concerned that he would try to fit these plastic pieces into the instrument and become disappointed when the endeavor of inserting toys into the Foldscope would fail. Therefore I showed him the video about Foldscope, which showed bacteria and cells.
He watched the video intently. When the shrimp-like creature made its in-and-out movement, he asked, “What’s that?” When the video presented scenes of African children, he said, “That’s Africa. They walk a lot there because there aren’t many cars.”
While we waited for his dad to become available to finish assembling the first Foldscope (my ex-husband’s son deemed me too slow when I began by reading aloud the parts list), I suggested that we go outside to collect samples. I followed him around their small front and back yards while he gathered specimens: a small chip of leaf, the center of a flower, the thin petal of a flower, the dried part of a plant, the dried leaf of another plant — all the while he placing these small chunks of specimens into my palm, and all the while I worrying that none of these samples would suit the Foldscope due to their size. It was fascinating that my ex-husband’s son was trying to make the samples small while gathering them. He had yet to experience, as he would shortly, the idea of taking a sample by, for example, using a cotton swab.
After his dad supposedly completed one of the Foldscopes, my ex-husband’s son wanted to see his fingernail. His dad clipped off a sliver, but they were unsuccessful because, as we learned later, his dad was not allowing the back part with the magnet to attach to the lens of the Foldscope. They tried something else (I fail to recall what), again with the back end of the instrument hanging down, and could see little. His dad swabbed the inner cheek of my ex-husband’s son (during all this time I was playing with his sister and unable to help), and it seemed to me that this sample would be promising. Again, they — and I — saw only small circles. But my ex-husband’s son was getting excited. AND he figured out that you need to align with the lens the hole that holds the sample. This realization might seem insignificant, but a 6-year-old child deduced on his own an essential part of what a microscope is: light coming through both the lens and the sample at the same time. After we understood that we needed to fold up the back part of the instrument, we could see the cells from his cheek. The identity of those cells remain unknown to me (bacteria or tissue?), but my ex-husband’s son was psyched. “I saw it!!!” he shouted.
Dinner intervened and we lacked time to try more samples. When leaving for the evening, I suggested that my ex-husband’s son examine next a piece of hair. In general when I leave his house, he gets distracted, sometimes pouting because my departure indicates the end of an evening of playtime. He might say little to me, requiring his parents to force him to say goodbye. But last night after I exited the front door, he rushed to get his Foldscope and said while running toward the light in the dining room that we had been using to visualize samples, “Thank you, Cammy, for the microscope!” His appreciation might have been magnified by the fact that he won a game of War earlier in the evening; War is the card game that is based completely on luck. We are attempting to teach him this fact, and still he struggles to comprehend it. Like nearly all children, he relishes victory.
After thanking me for the Foldscope, my ex-husband’s son remained inside the house, apparently playing with the instrument. Holding his sister, his mom came outside to say goodbye. My ex-husband also came outside to put the stroller back into the garage. Their daughter had had a wonderful time playing with me and kept waving goodbye with her left-hand and smiling. Gaining distance as I headed toward my apartment, I addressed her by name and said, “Goodbye! Goodbye!” After crossing the street, suddenly I heard the voice of my ex-husband’s son call loudly from inside the house. “Cammy, wait! I want to say goodbye too!” He called out a few more times, and I imagined him sitting on the front doorstep quickly slipping on his shoes. Soon he appeared near the street next to his mom and sister. I put out my palm to stop him from stepping forward more. He repeated while waving, “Goodbye, Cammy!” I repeated while waving back and saying his name, “Goodbye! I’ll see you soon!” Then he, his mom, and his sister turned away.
A moment later, after walking further down the street, my backpack weighing on me heavily, I heard the voice of my ex-husband’s son. “Cammy!” I turned around and there he was again, this time by himself. He called out while waving, “Goodbye!”
This moment was the happiest of my life. Love and happiness was emanating from this child to me. Thank you, Dr. Prakash, for bringing joy to people in this world.
— July 29, 2019
Featured Image: The leg of an ant that my ex-husband’s son killed during a subsequent session with our Foldscopes. His belly on the floor, hunting ants in the house by using the long forceps provided by the Deluxe Individual Kit constituted a highly enjoyable mission for my ex-husband’s son.