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Students Use Remote-Controlled Microscope to See What Makes Bugs Tick

The University of Illinois' Bugscope program has a powerful electron scanner that can be manipulated from anywhere in the world--including a Rancho Palos Verdes middle school.


Zahra Osman and Nancy Fung, both 14, huddled together in front of a computer as they tried to guess what they were looking at.

"They're probably wings, but I don't know," Nancy said as she looked at a black-and-white picture of two protrusions from the side of a bug. No, they look like fangs, Zahra said. OK, maybe not, seeing as the bug probably has no fangs, she reasoned.

The guessing game continued as the two girls probed the creature in their Dodson Middle School classroom in Rancho Palos Verdes. No one was squeamish about studying the structure of the half-inch harlequin bug. It helped that the specimen was nestled underneath a scanning electron microscope at a safe distance--about 2,000 miles away.

The students were participating in Bugscope, a nationwide science program developed by researchers at the Beckman Institute of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Teachers and the program's creators call it an innovative way for students to see that the study of science can be done outside the realm of a textbook and a traditional classroom setting.

"This is a stage at a student's life where you can turn them on to science," said Clint Potter, director of the Bugscope project. "They get to use a $600,000 microscope from 2,000 miles away. It seems exciting to them. And bugs are complicated. They have all sorts of structures."

In the program, students use a remote computer to communicate with an environmental scanning electron microscope in Illinois, which then transmits over the Internet images of bug parts that are normally undetectable to the naked eye--or to a conventional microscope, for that matter. Those images are captured and saved for use in later projects.

The exercise, which its creators are offering to schools throughout the country and the world, is designed to lead to projects that incorporate other disciplines, such as computer science and mathematics.

"You don't learn about science just in science class," teacher Girolann Accetta said. "You have to get out of that practice of compartmentalizing."

At Dodson, once the images are captured, the students will color them in with a computer program and create their own Web sites.

During Dodson's inaugural Bugscope session, dozens of students in grades six through eight crowded into a classroom and watched as student Daniel Sandri, 14, took control of the computer mouse and clicked on the control panel to manipulate the microscope. Daniel had been trained to work the program before the class.

"It's really easy," he said nonchalantly. "It's almost like a remote control for changing channels." Daniel's training allowed him to move the microscope lens around and change the image's magnification.

The images sent from Illinois were projected on a screen at the front of the classroom and on the monitors of the students' desktop computers.

The bug used for the exercise had been captured on the school's grounds, making it all the more appealing for the students to see the intricate details of their bug.

Sean O'Dell, 12, was one of the students who scoured the campus for the bug. "We found two, but one of them blew up in the car," he said. The chosen bug was sent by overnight mail to Illinois.

There were a few more minor glitches. The students had to wait a few minutes for the command to travel through the Internet to Illinois. "Just be patient," their teacher urged. Other times, students weren't able to find the images or were kicked off the server.

They also weren't sure what they were looking at half the time, but that was the beauty of the exercise, Accetta said. The students had to recall what they had learned about bugs in their life science class.

But at least one student was not as thrilled with the exercise as his classmates.

"Bugscope? Well, it's new, but I've worked with electron microscopes before," said James Kim, at 12 years old the youngest person in the country certified to trouble-shoot Apple computers. "It's OK."

As he walked around the classroom with a video camera, the other students kept busy tracing the images on their screens with their fingers and screaming out bug parts. "That's the antenna, the big fat thing there," Flora Lugo, 13, volunteered. "And that's the eye. We're trying to get a good look at the eye."

The creators of Bugscope hope it will attract interest from other schools. So far, they have received requests from schools in South Carolina, the Virgin Islands and as far away as Brazil and Spain.

The $50-per-classroom price tag is paid for by grants, making it possible for students like Alicia Holliman, 12, to use it.

"You get a closer look, a more graphic look," Alicia said. "It's a different way to study bugs. You can move the screen and change the magnification of the electron microscope, where on a [regular] microscope, you can only do so much."

With that, she zoomed in on the bug's eye. "I think it's real cool," she said.

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