I am a microbiologist, so needless to say I’m fascinated by the microscopic world.

I can literally spend hours using my microscope exploring life in a sample of pond water.

What I find most intriguing is that there is a universe all around us that we never see.  We live side by side with microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and algae but remain largely unaware of their presence.

Having access to a quality microscope changes that.  Students of all ages are captivated by the incredible detail they can discern with a microscope’s magnification. 

A young student looking through a microscope

Unfortunately, many students lack access to a microscope.  While some public libraries or universities may have microscopes available to lend out, typically the waiting list is long.  Two years ago when I was teaching biology in a co-op setting, several parents put their name on the waiting list at our local library.  Unfortunately, by the time our turn with the microscope came, we had moved on from the topic we’d wanted to use it to study.  

Because they are so many incredible things to examine with a microscope—things that could inspire a student to pursue a career in science—it’s my desire that every middle and high school student could have access to a microscope.  This is why I was elated to find out about a new, affordable microscope on the market: the Foldscope.

What is a Foldscope?

Manu Prakash, co-creator of the Foldscope (right)
Manu Prakash, co-creator of the Foldscope (right)

The mission of Foldscope is “to break down the price barrier between people & the curiosity and excitement of scientific exploration.”  

Foldscope was invented by Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski while Jim was a doctoral student in Manu’s laboratory at Stanford University.

As the two conducted field visits around the world, they found that many of the world’s students lacked access to a microscope.  They were inspired to create the best microscope possible with a cost of less than one dollar in parts. The solution: the Foldscope, the foldable microscope constructed mostly of paper.

To date, Foldscopes have been used by over half a million people in over 135 countries.  Not only are they used in the classroom, but they are also beneficial to public health and safety.  Foldscopes have been used to detect the microscopic eggs of agricultural pests, to detect fake currency and medicine, to detect bacteria and other pathogens in drinking water, and much more.

Currently, Foldscope has several purchase options.  The Deluxe Individual Kit retails for $39 (with free shipping).  They also sell a Basic Classroom Set.  This classroom set contains 20 Foldscopes and costs $35 ($1.75 a Foldscope).   As excited as I was about the prices, I admit I was skeptical of the quality of a microscope made from paper and wanted to test it myself.  Because I only needed one Foldscope, I ordered the Deluxe Individual Kit. (The purchase of the Deluxe Kits helps offset the price of the Classroom Sets, and helps Foldscope to continue to supply Classroom Sets at a reduced price).

My Honest Review

My Deluxe Individual Foldscope Kit
My Deluxe Individual Foldscope Kit

My Foldscope arrived in a small box within a week from ordering. When I opened it, I was delighted to see that the entire Foldscope was packaged inside a colorful metal tin. I was actually shocked to see all that came packed in the 1.12 pound package. From the Foldscope website:

Deluxe Individual Kit contents:

  • 1 Foldscope 
  • 1 instruction sheet
  • 2 140X lens (one extra lens) 
  • 4 magnetic couplers (for attaching cellphone and LED/Magnifier to Foldscope)
  • 1 metal storage box with integrated instrument tray
  • 1 LED/Magnifier with integrated magnifier for bright-field, dark-field and oblique phase imaging (battery included)
  • 1 sheet of diffuser stickers for LED/Magnifier
  • 1 sheet of reusable sealable PVC slides with micro-wells and plastic coverslips
  • 1 sheet of calibration/measurement grids
  • 3 nylon filter sheets (5, 25, 100 micron)
  • 2 stainless steel mesh filters (1mm and 300um)
  • 3 custom sample collection plastic bags
  • 2 Eppendorf tubes
  • 1 plastic pair of tweezers
  • 2 plastic pipettes 
  • 1 slide box with 2 pre-made glass slides and 3 blank glass slides
  • 1 ultra clear roll of tape for making quick slides/coverslips
  • 1 small blunt end metal scissors
  • 1 sheet of color stickers for labeling slides
  • 1 unique ID sticker code for access to Microcosmos community website (http://microcosmos.foldscope.com)
The paper body of the Foldscope
The paper body of the Foldscope
The accessory kit
The accessory kit

I did my best to follow the instructions, but I’ll be the first to admit that putting things together from directions isn’t my forte.

Assembly instructions
Assembly instructions

Fortunately for me, I found the Foldscope YouTube channel. There, I located a video that walked me through the process of assembling my Foldscope in an easy-to-follow manner.

I'm happy to report that I was able to assemble my Foldscope in about 20 minutes.
I’m happy to report that I was able to assemble my Foldscope in about 20 minutes.

I watched another video that demonstrated how to use my Foldscope to view slides. I was impressed to find that the Deluxe Kit came with two prepared slides so that I could start using my Foldscope right away. It also came with several blank glass slides, some paper slides, cover slips, and other tools for preparing my own slides.

The Deluxe Kit comes with tweezers, a pipette, collection tubes, prepared slides, blank slides, cover slips, and a strainer in case you need to drain sediment from your specimen.
The Deluxe Kit comes with tweezers, a pipette, collection tubes, prepared slides, blank slides, cover slips, and a strainer in case you need to drain sediment from your specimen.

I had assumed that you viewed your specimen by holding the Foldscope up to the light, and that is a way you can do it. But the Deluxe Kit also comes with an LED Magnifier that can attach the the Foldscope and allows for Brightfield microscopy.

The kit I ordered also came with an adapter so that you could attach the Foldscope to a smart phone and photograph or record videos of your specimen.

This was my one complaint. I have an iPhone XR, and I wasn’t able to get the adapter to stick to my phone camera. Their website does say that the adapter works with “most” phones, so it’s possible that my phone isn’t one that it works with. I have reached out to Foldscope to learn more. It could, of course, be user error on my part. I will continue to see if I can get my phone to work with my Foldscope.

So what do I think? I think that the Foldscope is a great tool for exploring the microscopic world. Because of its size and makeup, one is able to use the Foldscope in situations where a microscope isn’t feasible. For instance, I can now tote my Foldscope with me when I take a hike or visit the neighborhood creek and have it at the ready if I come upon something I’d like to investigate.

Additionally, I think the Classroom Set would be a great investment for home-school co-ops or in any classroom setting where providing a traditional microscope for each student isn’t practical. When I taught high school biology in a co-op setting, the students shared 3 microscopes among 12 students. With a limited class time, that meant that students only got to view each specimen for a short time. With a Classroom Set, each student could have their very own Foldscope for only $1.75 a piece. Then, every student could take the time to really study what they are looking at: things like their own cheek cells, chloroplasts streaming in plant cells, cells undergoing mitosis, and so much more.

How does the Foldscope compare to other microscopes? I’d say that it depends on the microscope. You obviously won’t get the same resolution from the Foldscope that you’d get from top dollar, high end microscopes. But I feel that the Foldscope is an excellent little microscope and I’m thrilled that it’s available!

Further Information

Check out Microcosmos, a collection of photographs and videos taken by people around the world using Foldscopes.

Watch this video about the history of the Foldscope and how it’s being used around the world. Inspiring and incredible!!! Guaranteed to be your feel-good moment of the day!

We live side by side with microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and algae of which we remain unaware. Having access to a quality microscope changes that. This is why I was elated to find out about the Foldscope.

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