Microscopes 4 Schools – a Lister-funded initiative inspiring school-age scientists

What are the experiences that first spark our interest in science? The first look down a microscope is a powerful moment for many young scientists, and one that Simon Bullock wanted to share as widely as possible.

Simon is a former Lister Fellow and the founder of Microscopes 4 Schools, a community science project that introduces children to the microscopic wonders of the natural world. Simon and his colleague Isabel Torres set the project up at the Cambridge Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in 2011 with the support of the Lister Institute.

Microscopes 4 Schools gives primary school students access to digital microscopy kits they can use to magnify and photograph specimens from the natural environment – including leaves, feathers, seeds and even minibeasts.

“I’ve always had an interest in outreach, but during my Lister-funded research project at Cambridge this idea crystallised,” says Simon, recalling how the project began.

“We approached the Lister Institute who provided a little pot of money to buy an initial set of instruments that we could take to schools. That essentially gave the MRC evidence that the project was going to work.”

The project delivers microscopes and laptops to schools on a two-week loan basis, giving priority to schools in under-privileged areas. Participating schools can then enter their images into an annual competition aimed at Year 5 and Year 6 students, with prizes including microscopes and digital imaging systems.

Initially the project was limited to Cambridgeshire and neighbouring counties, but thanks to recent additional funding from the Lister Institute in 2023, the team can now expand its geographical reach, delivering kits by post to other UK locations.

“It’s one-off funding that will allow us to do the experiment of expanding the project and seeing how that works,” says Simon.

To make the project a success, it was important to find microscopes that were affordable, student-friendly, and capable of taking great-quality images. “We did a lot of research to find the most user friendly system,” says Simon. “The one we chose suits all the children, even younger year groups, and they can actually operate them better than the adults because the controls and software are so straightforward. You can capture images very easily.”

Giving children the opportunity to select their own specimens is another key part of the project’s appeal.

“That’s the bit they really enjoy – getting out of the classroom,” Simon says. “They can run around the field for 10 minutes and find something that they didn’t even know was there, like a bug or a leaf. That gets them thinking more about science, and then they look into the microscope and it’s a revelation.”

Between 2018 and 2022, 59 schools and more than 3,500 pupils took part in the competition. The next ambition, Simon tells us, is to set up regional hubs that will offer even better access to microscopy for the scientists of tomorrow.

To find out more about the project, visit the Microscopes 4 Schools website