By Kristin Whittenburg, PhD, and Jason E. Osborne

On a cool day in November 2020, students in a science classroom in West Texas did not rush to the cafeteria for lunch. The students were so engaged with their science lesson they wanted to stay in the classroom and continue working rather than join their friends and eat. What exciting lesson were these students engaged in? The students had each been given a Foldscope microscope to assemble and use, and they were so excited and engaged they did not want their science class to be over that day.

This engaging experience has been made available to every fifth and seventh grade student (approximately 2,700 and 2,600 students, respectively) in Ector County ISD (ECISD), a public school district in Odessa, Texas. With over 32,000 students enrolled, ECISD is the largest district within the 37,553 square miles that make up Region 18. The students of ECISD are predominantly minority, with 55% of students classified as economically disadvantaged. As ECISD serves the entire county, the students come from urban as well as more rural settings.

One of ECISD’s foundational goals is to equip students to be adaptable in an ever-changing society, and one strategy for accomplishing this goal is the implementation of innovative instructional models. ECISD Innovation Office’s PICK Education model establishes partnerships with multiple universities and businesses to bring real-world learning and discovery to the classroom through innovative instructional models. One of these partnerships is with Stanford University in California and Team Foldscope for the Foldscope initiative. ECISD worked with the Stanford Foldscope team to design a custom Foldscope kit that would serve both in-person and remote students effectively.

Top row left
: Dr. Azul Purcell explains to her students how to prepare a slide for their Foldscopes. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Granado. Top row center: Some of the specimens submitted via Twitter for the Spring 2020 ECISD Foldscope Challenge. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Granado. Top row right: An ECISD student views a specimen outdoors using her Foldscope during remote learning in Spring 2020. Photo courtesy of Hillary Thomasson. Bottom row left: An ECISD student uses the instructions to assemble her Foldscope at home. Photo courtesy of Christina Stevenson. Bottom row right: An ECISD student discovering the world through a new lens. Photo courtesy of Courtney Smith.

What is a Foldscope?
A Foldscope is a microscope made of high-quality, water-resistant paper. The lens is a tiny glass sphere with the capability to magnify objects to 140 times their actual size. Foldscope is the creation of Manu Prakash, PhD, and Jim Cybulski, PhD, from Stanford University. The Foldscope is inexpensive enough (the basic Foldscope kit costs $1.75) to be accessible to populations around the world; over one million of these instruments have been distributed globally for use by students, as well as by professionals needing a cost-effective and portable microscopy solution. For more information visit Foldscope.

Why Foldscope for ECISD?
Students in ECISD have opportunities to participate in a number of innovative instructional models that focus on real-world applications. For example, high school students have the option to take a novel Neuroscience Research and Scientific Design course where they work with fruit fly brain images and collect data using cutting-edge software. Another example is the SharkFinder® project, where students process and analyze ancient marine sediment to explore fossilized prehistoric shark, skate and ray teeth. Students discover and select specimens (mostly fossilized teeth), and the specimens are then sent to partner universities for identity verification. ECISD students have received recognition for scientifically significant finds where students became an extension of research through the SharkFinder® project with university partners. Initiatives such as these provide avenues for science to be the catalyst for meaningful cross-curricular connections.

In Spring 2020, with the COVID-19 crisis unfolding, ECISD was seeking to continue to provide engaging and innovative hands-on experiences for students. The Innovation Office, in concert with the district’s Curriculum and Instruction team, decided to purchase and distribute Foldscopes to as many students as possible. The goal was to provide students with equipment for scientific discoveries they would not have to share and could be taken home in the event of remote learning. For distance learners, the Foldscopes can be used to engage students in remote laboratory activities. The Foldscopes met these criteria, and also provided a way to involve parents in the students’ learning.

How Did ECISD Roll Out Foldscopes?
The Foldscope initiative started with one teacher who volunteered to pilot the model with her fifth-grade science class. A Foldscope was provided for the teacher and for each student in the class. Once the students had assembled their Foldscopes, the teacher implemented several lessons she had created incorporating Foldscopes. As learning during this time was remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pilot teacher placed the instructional activities in an online portfolio platform where the students also shared their discoveries. The instructional activities using the Foldscope were aligned to the fifth-grade curriculum standards and included instruction addressing concepts such as the structure and function of leaves, inherited traits, microscopic organisms, and insect anatomy.

In addition to the pilot class, ECISD students were able to request a Foldscope online and participate in the “ECISD At Home” Foldscope challenge. The challenge was shared with students via the “ECISD At Home” broadcast on the local CBS7 network; these educational, twice-weekly episodes that aired on the local TV station were intended to help parents with at-home learning during the pandemic. Using an attachment provided with each Foldscope, students were able to capture images from their Foldscope on a phone or tablet that could be shared electronically. Students participated in the challenge by posting their discoveries on Twitter with the tag #ECISDFoldscope.

Armed with the knowledge gained from the pilot and limited spring rollout, the Innovation Office made plans for a large-scale rollout starting in August 2020. In order to prepare teachers for the rollout, a Foldscope kit was delivered to each fifth-grade science, GT and bilingual teacher in August. Professional learning on how to assemble and use the Foldscope was provided via virtual trainings after school. These trainings were optional for teachers to attend, and resources for assembling and using the Foldscopes were also made available online for any teacher to access and use.

After each teacher had their Foldscopes, a Foldscope kit and science journal were packaged for each fifth-grade student and labeled with their name. The packets were distributed to each elementary campus for distribution to the fifth-grade students. Students attending face-to-face received their Foldscope packet in class, and parents were able to pick up a packet for students learning remotely. As word of the initiative got out, seventh grade teachers wanted in and so Foldscopes were also distributed to each seventh-grade science teacher and their students. More professional learning opportunities were scheduled via virtual after-school meetings to provide information for the additional teachers.

Many students jumped right in and were able to assemble their Foldscope independently. Some teachers chose to assemble the Foldscopes as a classroom activity, and Innovation Office instructional specialists visited classrooms as requested to assist with the assembly and first use of the Foldscopes. To assist with lesson planning that incorporated Foldscopes, the ECISD Curriculum and Instruction Science team created lesson activities aligned to the science curriculum standards. Two activities were created for each grade level from Kinder through grades 9-10 (Biology). Additionally, Stanford University’s Foldscope team created lesson activities and online resources to facilitate discovery using prepared slides with the Foldscope. Stanford’s Foldscope team also conducted a virtual gathering for ECISD teachers to generate excitement and interest in the initiative.

What Has Been the Impact?
While still in the early stages, the intention of the ECISD Foldscope initiative is for students to have a portable, personal microscope to use at school and at home for learning and discovery at any time. The Foldscope will become another regular tool students and teachers have at their disposal. To date, over 6,000 Foldscopes have been distributed to ECISD students. According to Stanford University, this is the largest Foldscope rollout in any school district in the United States.

Immediate impacts of the Foldscope initiative are already being seen in the classrooms and at home.  For example, students in one seventh grade class have combined microscopy with learning about anatomy as they viewed specimens such as bone marrow and capillaries. Another class sparked curiosity in geology by observing minerals under their Foldscopes. Students learning remotely have been able to participate as well; fifth grade remote learners have shared their Foldscope findings virtually with their class. Student engagement with the Foldscopes is evident when students would rather skip lunch to continue working with them. Students have also been spotted using their Foldscopes while outside the school waiting for their parents to pick them up. One teacher reported a student’s grandparent was so intrigued with the Foldscope that the student had a hard time reclaiming it.

An exciting aspect of this initiative is how teachers became energized and excited about the work their students were doing with Foldscopes, and through social media and word-of-mouth the excitement was contagious. Teachers, eager for ways to engage their students (both in-class and remote), continue to request Foldscopes for more classes in more grade levels and subject areas across the district. ECISD recently ordered an additional 3,000 Foldscope kits to distribute to these teachers for their students.

The Foldscope initiative has also opened up other opportunities for teachers. One of ECISD’s seventh grade teachers, Dr. Azul Purcell, was recently featured on an episode of Foldscope Live. This series of workshops is filmed live by presenters from all over the world who are using Foldscopes, and garners a global audience. Dr. Purcell shared how she is implementing Foldscope with her classes, what her students have discovered, and why engaging hands-on learning is an important part of her classroom.

What is the Future of Foldscopes in ECISD?
The Foldscope community offers many opportunities for real-world applications of data and discovery. Future plans for Foldscopes in ECISD include citizen science applications as well as global communication and collaboration. Citizen science occurs when the public voluntarily participates in real-world scientific research projects by doing activities such as contributing data, making discoveries, and coming up with solutions to problems. For example, just recently a citizen science project was announced via the Foldscope Microcosmos blog. The project will involve fifth grade students using the Foldscope to do water quality data collection in Panama, where water quality is a serious health issue. The students will analyze and present their data at a collaborative forum, discuss solutions, and then work with scientists to create an action plan for water quality. Citizen science projects like this one provide opportunities for students to work with real-world data, solve real-world problems, and work collaboratively with experts to create professional-level products. ECISD is in communication with Stanford University and Team Foldscope regarding the creation of new citizen science opportunities using Foldscopes.

The Microcosmos blog on the Foldscope site is another avenue for potential development in ECISD. The Microcosmos blog allows students from all over the world to post and discuss their Foldscope findings as part of a virtual global community. These exchanges could lead to global collaborative projects, such as the water quality project discussed above, as well as develop global awareness and citizenship in students. In addition, these global communications could lead to engaging cross-curricular connections in content areas other than science.

The Foldscope will be incorporated into existing initiatives at ECISD, including SharkFinder®. Students will be able to use the Foldscope to discover microfossils in the ancient marine sediment that could be determined as scientifically significant by a university partner. Foldscopes could also be used in ECISD’s newly created dual credit Geosciences class to analyze specimens both in the lab and in the field. The Geosciences class, which was created as a partnership between ECISD and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB), would provide an avenue for secondary students to use the Foldscope for real-world discoveries. Additionally, the Region 18 EcosySTEM (part of the Texas Education Agency’s Texas EcosySTEM) design team has expressed interest in expanding the Foldscope initiative to districts outside of ECISD.

By participating in citizen science projects, global collaboration, and engaging scientific discovery, ECISD students participating in the Foldscope initiative will be on their way to meeting the district’s goal of equipping students to be adaptable in an ever-changing society. ECISD is working with Team Foldscope to develop a system for teachers to earn badges for professional growth opportunities with Foldscope. By providing teachers and students with the tools for discovery and growth, avenues for developing problem-solving, communication, creativity, and other critical skills are opened. It is exciting to see where the teachers are taking this innovative tool, and exciting to see students and families engaged in learning and discovery.

Dr. Kristin Whittenburg is the Research and Innovation Strategist in the Innovation Office at Ector County ISD. Prior to ECISD, she spent 16 years working for Regional Education Service Centers as Science Specialist and Coordinator of Curriculum.  Kristin taught middle and high school science for eight years, and recently graduated with her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus in STEM and global education from Texas Tech University.

Jason E. Osborne is the Chief Innovation Officer at Ector County ISD in Odessa, Texas. Jason’s work in science, education, and engineering has been recognized and featured in publications and media outlets such as Nature, Science, Scientific American, Popular Science, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, TEDx, and NPR. In June 2013, The President of the United States and the White House Executive Office of The President honored Jason as a Champion of Change for his dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy. Jason was recently recognized as one of the Top 30 EdTech Influencers by EdTech Magazine.

TEPSA Leader, Winter 2021, Vol 34, No. 1

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