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Armed with inexpensive yet powerful paper microscopes, Johns Hopkins graduate student Ikbal Choudhury and his team are bringing science education and environmental conservation to teachers and young students in resource-poor and low-income communities in the United States, India and Bangladesh. Through their nonprofit Open Field Collective, the team trains teachers in microscopy and spectroscopy techniques to help communities monitor local environmental health.

“Our goal is to educate and inspire students and ordinary people in scientific inquiry by giving them the tools they need to monitor the state of the environment in which they live,” says Choudhury , who received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from Johns Hopkins the spring.

With financial support from the American Society of Cell Biology, National Geographic, and Awesome Foundation, the team developed an algal bloom monitoring program. The program relies on paper microscopes sold by Foldscope Instruments, which cost about $2, and basic spectroscope equipment. For many of the program participants, the program offers a first insight into the microscopic world.

The team then teaches participants how to use these microscopy and spectroscopy techniques to identify species of algae collected from local water sources. Algae are environmental indicator species – the presence or absence of certain species helps people analyze local water and environmental health. Participants upload their findings to a database on the Open Field Collective’s website, which can be used for long-term environmental health monitoring.

“Our goal is to educate and inspire students and ordinary citizens for scientific inquiry by giving them the tools they need to monitor the state of the environment in which they live.”

Ikbal Choudhury

Graduate, Johns Hopkins University

The idea for the programs came about in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic when Choudhury was a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Unable to conduct his experiments due to widespread shutdowns, he used his free time to connect with like-minded people on social media who wanted to organize science programs that included people of all ages.

The algal bloom monitoring program holds special meaning for Choudhury, having been involved in a similar project since he was 13 years old. His native India had a national initiative to get more kids interested in science. Children went on excursions with scientists and conducted their own experiments. Choudhury’s project involved identifying microbes in drinking water he collected from wells, ponds and rivers in and around his hometown of Silchar. As he identified species, he was amazed at the diversity of life in a seemingly insignificant pond and found that the experience was a catalyst for his interest in scientific discovery.

The team had originally attempted to teach students in virtual camps, but soon realized that students’ instructional needs varied across the United States and internationally, and they needed teachers as anchor points to implement strategies that worked best with their students . They are now training fifth through ninth grade teachers in small cohorts within a few weeks.

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“Teachers are the ones who really help us every step of the way, and they find ways to incorporate the materials into their curriculum,” says Ankita Jha, co-founder of Open Field Collective and a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health.

The team has trained more than 150 teachers and reached 600 students. They make printed material available to people in remote areas or in areas with limited access to digital communications. Their training content also appears in different languages. The team also noted that the program gave participants a sense of responsibility and accountability to their local communities.

The team is currently recruiting a new cohort in Nepal and several local governments in India have been involved in expanding the program. While the algal bloom monitoring program has become the organization’s flagship program, the team hopes to develop further pilot projects in different fields and communities such as astronomy.

“We don’t want to limit ourselves to just spectroscopy and microscopy. We’re identifying more researchers and teachers who want to engage with us to make science education more accessible and equitable,” says Choudhury.

Open Field Collective’s other co-founders include Sayak Bhattacharya, a scientist at Johnson & Johnson; Ankit Dwivedi, bioinformatician at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Kanika Khanna, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

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