Why use the Playscope?
Early in my career, I was given the opportunity to work under the mentorship of an expert in the field of cellular motility. My research focused on understanding the impact surface tension had on cellular differentiation and how tumorigenic cells can manipulate force-sensing surface molecules to aid in metastasis. I could talk for hours about surface tension and cellular differentiation – trust me, one of my thesis advisors fell asleep. What struck me the most about this project, however, was the remarkable similarity of cellular processes.The processes that promote cellular de-differentiation and metastasis are a veritable “copy-paste” of those that promote embryogenesis. OK, patterns in nature are nothing new, but to a bushy-tailed, bright-eyed (read: naive) scientist that had previously thought of science in a static, 2D way, it was utterly mind-blowing. Enough so to keep said scientist studying cellular motility for the next five years…and then convince said scientist to become a teacher so she could share this inspiring revelation with mildly-enthusiastic middle schoolers.
Going into education, my goal had been to have students delve into cellular biology and discover for themselves the recurring patterns of differentiation, replication, and – more importantly – motility. Due to my limited classroom budget, however, I was never able to study cellular biology to the extent I had hoped. Instead, I found myself designing virtual simulations and interactive tutorials to take the place of the more expensive, hands-on experiences. This band-aid solution worked in the short-term, but was ultimately lacking the authenticity of self-driven scientific discovery.
When I was introduced to the Playscope, my first thought was, “this is exactly what was missing from my classroom!” My mind was instantly flooded with a series of topics that I had always hoped to teach, but had no means to carry out due to funding constraints. Though simple in design, the Playscope provides an opportunity to study various sectors of middle school life sciences in unprecedented detail. Take for example amoeboid movement, a topic that surfaces time and again in the Life Science strand of the Next Generation Science Standards.
Amoeboid movement is one of the most common forms of locomotion displayed by eukaryotic cells. Indeed, a surplus of organisms – amoeba, protists, and leukocytes – display the iconic crawling motion, which is easily observed using a compound light microscope. One can envision a lesson that begins with students using the Playscope as a platform to perform a comparative analysis of the movement displayed by Dictyostelium discoideum, Euglena gracilis, and human leukocytes. Program features embedded within the Playscope application enable students to quantitate the directionality of movement, total distance traveled by the organism, and average velocity. Additionally, students have the ability to generate short GIFs of organismal movement that can be instantly shared with peers. The data generated using the Playscope would be enough to illustrate and spark a conversation about the apparent “sameness” of eukaryotic cell movement, thus paving the way for an in-depth investigation of amoeboid movement and – if I may throw in a bit of my own instructional flair – how aggressive sarcomas use amoeboid movement to infiltrate the bloodstream and spread to other sites within the body. With a single device, students learn how to operate a microscope, prepare a wet mount of living organisms, generate meaningful data that has obvious ties to mathematics, both in regards to graphing a function and calculating experimental variables, and present technical information in a variety of digital and print formats.
Instructional gains aside, I think the true strength of the Playscope lies is that it is inclusive of all learners. I began my teaching career on a naval base, where my average class size was 40 students. One of the biggest challenges I faced as an instructor was designing lessons that would meet each student where they were and push them further along in their studies. That meant designing lessons for students that had never encountered science in their academic life and for students that were already well past high school standards. When I said my first thought upon seeing the Playscope was, “this is exactly what was missing from my classroom,” I meant it. The Playscope gives students the opportunity to interact with science on a scale unlike before. The games embedded within the application allow each student to explore any given topic at a depth they choose. Regardless of the path each student-directed lesson leads, the entire class is still exposed to the overarching themes of each classroom exploration.