Think back to fifth grade science class: The teacher had some microbes on a slide, which she carefully put underneath the light of the heavy-duty matte black microscope that sat collecting dust on the counter most of the year. Thirty kids gathered around to take turns looking through the viewfinder, with one eye squinted shut and the other desperately searching for cell movement. After one short minute, the turn was over, and the next kid was up. At the end of class, that was it. The microscope was shoved back under the counter until the lesson plan called for it again.

Jing Luo wants to make every day microscope day.

He 3D-printed a portable microscope that hooks onto your smartphone or tablet and called it the Catalyst Frame Microscope. Luo recently raised more than $20,000 on Kickstarter and more than $2,000 with his current Indiegogo campaign, which has almost three weeks left.

“These microscopes are going on an amazing journey of discovery, learning, and inspiration,” said Luo, founder and creator of Catalyst Frame.

SEE: 15 awesome images from the Catalyst Frame smartphone microscope

The journey

Luo is a great example of a maker and 21st century entrepreneur. His background is in molecular cell biology, but when he graduated from UC Berkeley, he started a tutoring business. On average, his students improved one to two letter grades. He was ecstatic to find how much progress they were making and excited to discover how capable he was of being a leader, so he started brainstorming other ideas to continue making positive impacts in science and engineering.

Luo figured he should learn how to use the tools that would allow him to “build products and services of the future.” And for him, that started with CAD software and 3D printing.

While researching innovations in biology, he started talking to friends in the field about their challenges. One told him that traditional microscopes were too bulky to carry out in the field, limiting research.

Luo looked into how to assemble cheap DIY smartphone microscopes, but found they were clunky and inefficient. So he decided to start from scratch. The entire design process only took two to three months. Part of what allowed Luo to work so quickly was learning CAD so he could 3D print his prototypes. He realized design limitations with traditional injection molding and manufacturing processes were too much trouble, so Luo built it himself.

The current version is the fourth prototype, printed using a Stratasys printer though Red Eye on Demand (a Stratasys company), which used a high quality ABS-like material. The first two prototypes were printed through Shapeways, and the third was made with Makerbot. Luo knew the fourth was the winner once he saw the CAD design. The microscope has a mounting for the microscope lens, but the piece doesn’t touch the lens itself (which sets it apart from others on the market).

“One of the main [ways] I was hoping to be useful is in field medicine because it’s so powerful. It works just like a real microscope, and that’s really important because it keeps it sterile,” he said. “It’s one of a few smartphone microscopes where you can move the slide around.”

The lens only has to be focused one time using the knob. After that, it’s like using a smartphone camera. It can take photos, videos, panoramics, slow motion, or even time-lapse images. It works with any smartphone or tablet. The lens has a range of magnification of 30/50/170 or 30/170/340, which improves as your phone camera is upgraded.

“Magnification combines with a multiplicative effect, so if you were to combine a 2x lens with a 3x lens you’d get a total of 6x. The same applies here, the 340x optical magnification combines with the 4.5x digital magnification to get a total of 1530x magnification,” Luo said.

However, the image can’t be infinitely magnified from a microscope lens with simply higher power cameras. Past the resolution limit, everything starts getting blurry, he added. But there are lower magnification lenses with higher resolutions that he may experiment with in the future.

To build the first round of product, Luo is using a Form1+ 3D printer (which was also originally crowdfunded). It’s in the mail, so he’s ready to start as soon as possible and is already considering changes he can make to the design. One may be to add a hinge so that the microscope wouldn’t require a case, but would tuck up into itself.

The microscope uses two AAA batteries, a design choice made by Luo because they are universally available, and this device is marketed to scientists or researchers studying in remote areas or people using the device in developing nations.

Once he had the working prototype, he decided to crowdfund it on Kickstarter. The Indiegogo campaign is being used to raise more awareness and more funds to scale production.

“That way, I can include other things like trying to include a tripod, so you can use it hands free or holding it,” he said. “It wasn’t initially included in the budget, but because we are raising more money, this is more and more possible.”

Bringing science to the masses

The US ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations, according to the Department of Education. Only 16% of high school seniors are proficient in STEM and interested in a career STEM fields.

We’re inundated with reasons to teach children how to code, but it’s just as important to focus on basic science skills, particularly in elementary and middle school, since that’s where the journey starts.

The US needs to address the way we teach science. Last year, the Program for International Student Assessment (which tests 15-year-olds) found that 22 education systems scored above the US average in science. In 2009, there were 18 that scored higher.

Education was a major reason Luo created this versatile microscope. Almost every child and teenager has a smartphone these days. Putting this new tool in the hands of students and young researchers can democratize scientific education and research.

“There’s so much life out there, so many tiny, tiny organisms,” he said. “When you realize that is right in front of you in a little tiny cup of water… it will make a huge difference for the next generation.”

Many backers of the crowdfunding campaigns are teachers, and they gave Luo the idea of including a tripod mount to work with iPads or other tablets in the classroom. He thinks he can easily 3D print that to go with the microscope.

“I’m hearing from doctors, vets, and teachers — and Kickstarter is cool and all — but I can’t wait to get all these [printed] and ship them out and see what people can do with them,” he said.