December 23, 2014

3D Printed Microscopes Lesson Plan

A couple of weeks ago I introduced a project to my 4th grade students on 3D printing microscopes. It has been a fun experience, but we became side tracked with other projects and winter break. I gave it some thought and decided to make it more of a formal lesson in order to get it moving and get it done. So I wrote up an actual lesson plan. You can read about it below or check out the google doc (3D Printed Microscope Lesson) if that is more convenient for you. If anyone out there teaches this lesson, I would love to hear about it. Leave a comment below or email me.


Tools Needed

  • 3D printer
  • Computers
  • Tablet or Smart Phone with camera
  • 3D Modeling Software
  • 3mm Glass Ball
  • Calipers


Learning Outcomes

After this lesson students will:

  • create their own microscopes
  • understand how microscopes work
  • use their microscopes to observe other scientific phenomenons

Standards (NGSS)

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
3-5-ETS1-3. Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.


Procedure (Part 1)

Students read the following article and watch the video:

Students discuss the following questions:

  1. How do you think making microscopes like this can help people?
  2. How can making our own microscopes help out our classroom, or our school?
  3. What do the microscopes in the article need to work?
  4. How do they work?
  5. Would you make any changes to their design if you could? What would they be?

Explore the Microscopes

This is a good opportunity to show a small group of students how to download a file, load it on the 3D printer, and print it. Once they are printed they can be used for the exploration below.

  1. Pass out printed microscopes, slides with something to observe on them, and tablets or phones.
  2. Have students attempt to put it all together and view the slides. Allow students to reference the video from the article above.
  3. Discuss successes and obstacles. This is where we discovered that the downloaded microscopes were not very applicable to us because of the protective cases that we use on our school iPads.

Closure for Part 1

Discuss why the microscopes downloaded from Pacific Northwest Laboratory will not work for your class. Ask what it would take to get them to work better. This might be a good time to look at other microscopes to see how they work. Also, this might be a good time to discuss the importance of light in a microscope.


Procedure (Part 2)

Introduce the Problem

Tell the students that will be designing and making microscopes that will work with the devices they have available to them. Refer to earlier discussion about what they might need to do to be successful. I recommend a simple design like the one from Pacific Northwest Laboratory. To differentiate for talented students, have them add a light and a switch to their microscopes.

Begin Designing

Give students time to start designing their microscopes. I have my students make sketches in their science journals. Allow them to use measuring tools and anything else they might need to plan a design.

Make a 3D Model

I have my students show me their plans before I let them start designing them on a computer. This way I can ask them questions and force them to think through their process more thoroughly. Once they have the “OK” from me, they are allowed to use the computer animated drawing (CAD) software that we have available. Currently that is 123D Design, Sketchup, and Tinkercad.

The designing process can take a lot of time. I set short deadlines for my students to help keep them on track to finish. I check in on their designs often and help where I can to make sure they are progressing. I’ll give their design one more check before they print it, then let them print it and try it out. This process can have several iterations. I encourage trial and error with this part.


The unit ends with some successful and some not successful microscopes. The students share their designs with the class and share what they feel is successful about their microscope and what can be improved on. The class has an opportunity to try them out and compare their designs to each other. The files can be stored in a public place on the computer and printed as needed.

In the end, there will be working microscopes for the class or school to use for other scientific experiments.

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