Scheeline developed a method using a few basic, inexpensive supplies and a digital camera to build a spectrometer, an important basic chemistry instrument. Spectrophotometry is one of the most widely used means for identifying and quantifying materials in both physical and biological sciences.
“If we want to measure the amount of protein in meat, or water in grain, or iron in blood, it’s done by spectrophotometry,” Scheeline said.
Many schools have a very limited budget for instruments and supplies, making spectrometers cost-prohibitive for science classrooms. Even when a device is available, students fail to learn the analytical chemistry principles inherent in the instrument because most commercially available devices are enclosed boxes. Students simply insert samples and record the numbers the box outputs without learning the context or thinking critically about the process.
“Science is basically about using your senses to see things – it’s just that we’ve got so much technology that now it’s all hidden,” Scheeline said.
“The student gets the impression that a measurement is something that goes on inside a box and it’s completely inaccessible, not understandable – the purview of expert engineers,” he said. “That’s not what you want them to learn. In order to get across the idea, ‘I can do it, and I can see it, and I can understand it,’ they’ve go to build the instrument themselves. “
So Scheeline set out to build a basic spectrometer that was not only simple and inexpensive but also open so that students could see its workings and play with its components, encouraging critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. It wouldn’t have to be the most sensitive or accurate instrument – in fact, he hoped that obvious shortcomings of the device would reinforce students’ understanding of its workings.
“If you’re trying to teach someone an instrument’s limitations, it’s a lot easier to teach them when they’re blatant than when they’re subtle. Everything goes wrong out in the open,” he said.
In a spectrometer, white light shines through a sample solution. The solution absorbs certain wavelengths of light. A diffraction grating then spreads the light into its color spectrum like a prism. Analyzing that spectrum can tell chemists about the properties of the sample.
For a light source, Scheeline used a single light-emitting diode (LED) powered by a 3-volt battery, the kind used in key fobs to remotely unlock a car. Diffraction gratings and cuvettes, the small, clear repositories to hold sample solutions, are readily available from scientific supply companies for a few cents each. The entire setup cost less than $3. The limiting factor seemed to be in the light sensor, or photodetector, to capture the spectrum for analysis.
“All of a sudden this light bulb went off in my head: a photodetector that everybody already has! Almost everybody has a cell phone, and almost all phones have a camera,“ Scheeline said. “I realized, if you can get the picture into the computer, it’s only software that keeps you from building a cheap spectrophotometer.”
To remove that obstacle, he wrote a software program to analyze spectra captured in JPEG photo files and made it freely accessible online, along with its source code and instructions to students and teachers for assembling and using the cell-phone spectrometer. It can be accessed through the Analytical Sciences Digital Library.
Scheeline has used his cell-phone spectrometers in several classroom settings. His first classroom trial was with students in Hanoi, Vietnam, as part of a 2009 exchange teaching program Scheeline and several other U. of I. chemistry professors participated in. Although the students had no prior instrumentation experience, they greeted the cell-phone spectrometers with enthusiasm.
In the United States, Scheeline used cell-phone spectrometers in an Atlanta high school science program in the summers of 2009 and 2010. By the end of the 45-minute class, Scheeline was delighted to find students grasping chemistry concepts that seemed to elude students in similar programs using only textbooks. For example, one student inquired about the camera’s sensitivity to light in the room and how that might affect its ability to read the spectrum.
“And I said, ‘You’ve discovered a problem inherent in all spectrometers: stray light.’ I have been struggling ever since I started teaching to get across to university students the concept of stray light and what a problem it is, and here was a high school kid who picked it right up because it was in front of her face!” Scheeline said.
Scheeline has also shared his low-cost instrument with those most likely to benefit: high school teachers. Teachers participating in the U. of I. EnLiST program, a two-week summer workshop for high school chemistry and physics teachers in Illinois, built and played with cell-phone spectrometers during the 2009 and 2010 sessions. Those teachers now bring their experience – and assembly instructions – to their classrooms.
Scheeline wrote a detailed account of the cell-phone spectrometer and its potential for chemistry education in an article published in the journal Applied Spectroscopy. He hopes that the free availability of the educational modules and software source code will inspire programmers to develop smart-phone applications so that the analyses can be performed in-phone, eliminating the need to transfer photo files to a computer and turning cell phones into invaluable classroom tools.
“The potential is here to make analytical chemistry a subject for the masses rather than something that is only done by specialists,” Scheeline said. “There’s no doubt that getting the cost of equipment down to the point where more people can afford them in the education system is a boon for everybody.”
Liz Ahlberg | University of Illinois
Meadows beat out shrubs when it comes to storing carbon
23.11.2017 | Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Migrating Cells: Folds in the cell membrane supply material for necessary blebs
23.11.2017 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
Heat from the friction of rocks caused by tidal forces could be the “engine” for the hydrothermal activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. This presupposes that...
The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.
Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....
The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.
Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...
Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.
That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...
Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.
During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....
15.11.2017 | Event News
15.11.2017 | Event News
30.10.2017 | Event News
23.11.2017 | Information Technology
23.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.11.2017 | Life Sciences