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Ask Slashdot: Advice On Child-Friendly Microscopes? 118

OceanMan7 writes "My 7-year-old son is getting very interested in microscopic things — from bacteria to parameciums (paramecia?) Not being a biologist, I would appreciate advice on what type of microscope to get. I'd be operating it and he viewing with supervision. I'd like something better than a toy and plan to buy it used, if possible. Extra points if it's stereo and also allows me to view opaque objects at low magnification."
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Ask Slashdot: Advice On Child-Friendly Microscopes?

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  • USB Microscope (Score:5, Informative)

    by RackinFrackin ( 152232 ) on Sunday June 10, 2012 @09:58AM (#40274207)

    I'd suggest a $100 or so USB microscope. You can use it to look at opaque objects, and you can have the picture on your computer screen. That would be a big help when trying to point out what the kid is seeing.

    • Years ago when my girls were little, we had one of these from Logitech. It worked fine (came with some software). It was essentially just a camera with some close-up capability. I can also recommend little $10 portable microscopes from, among others, Edmund Scientific. They're about the size of a cigar case. They're a small hassle to get focused but you can take them anywhere. They even have a little light.
      • by qubezz ( 520511 )
        I have one of these for seeing small things on the recommendation of someone else: []
        Good for inspecting how clean the record stylus is, reading the markings on surface mount components, seeing what an iPhone4s pixel looks like. I probably use it once a week for something, knowing I having it. For examining cellular life, you'll need to prepare slides and have a real microscope, but for seeing what common materials like fibers look like up close,
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 10, 2012 @11:41AM (#40274925)

      Usually, that means inexpensive and military grade toughness. Two things rarely found in a precision optic :D

      However, depending on your budget, you have a lot of options. First, some clarification.

      You mentioned stereo being a plus. This can mean two things. Stereo objective, or stereo eyepieces. Stereo objectives are
      typically found on lower power scopes used for close up work on things like circuit boards, coins, stamps, gems, jewelery, insects, etc.
      Stereo eyepieces ( binocs ) are can be found on both low and high power ( compound ) scopes and are typically an upgrade ( read that, more $$$ )

      Considering the age of your interested viewer, you probably want to start on the low end and work your way up if they continue to express
      an interest in the field as the years go by. The internet has many sites that sell scopes, some of which I would consider to be in the budget
      range for the average seven year old. Some I've used in the past: ( in no particular order )

      Even Amazon and Ebay would probably be valid places to look.

      Prices are typically dictated by type, options and manufacturer.

      That said, consider the following:

      The low end high power setups are going to start around $100 USD for monocular ( single eyepiece ) systems with a 1D stage ( It only moves
      up and down ) and LED light source. Probably what you're going to want to look at for a starter scope.

      Mid range will get into Binoc ( dual ) eyepieces, better light sources ( variable halogen ), better / more objectives and a multi-dimensional stage.
      ( stage movement up / down, slide movement forward / back / side )

      High end simply builds on the mid range with better quality components and glass.

      For a seven year old ? I would start with something along these lines:

      or, if you really want the binocs, maybe something like this:

      It's certainly an interesting hobby. I have a pair of scopes ( low power and a compound ) on my desk here at home I use to look at whatever
      strikes my fancy. Personally, I would rather have the physical scope vs the USB. That's just a personal preference though.

      • USB versus physical scope is a toss-up. You'll get better image clarity with a physical scope unless you're using a really good USB camera - the less expensive ones tend to be web-cam class.

        On the other hand a USB scope makes it easier involve friends in the experience since they can all see what's going on at once, plus with halfway decent software they can easily capture photographs and video. Good digital zoom can actually draw out a surprising amount of detail provided a bicubic or better filter is use

    • I recently bought a Celestron USB Microscope and returned it. It's just a cheap webcam with a bad lens in front. The LED lighting worked erratically.
    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      How about living creatures like ants? Also works with Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. :)

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I got a veho USB microscope for cheap to look at small electronics joins (I'm half blind). as always the cd that arrives with new hardware goes in the garbage.

      a simple 1 line .bat file does the job after vlc player is installed...

      vlc.exe dshow:// :dshow-vdev="Vimicro USB2.0 UVC PC Camera" :dshow-adev= :live-caching=0

      shortcut to the .bat file in the start menu means full screen access to the microscope is only 2 seconds away whenever it's needed.

    • I always thought these were "toys" - but having received one as a gift, which can do x400, I'm pretty impressed with it. (Also, just works under Linux, as a v4l device).

      You might also consider an SLR camera with a macro lens: you can pick up an Olympus OM1 for about $20 on eBay, and add a 300mm macro lens for perhaps $30.

  • webcam (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Sunday June 10, 2012 @10:16AM (#40274321)

    One of the webcam models works well with kids because its cheap and displays on a big monitor, so you can look at stuff together. Some of the better ones show up as if they're normal webcams so you can have some weird internet chats with friends and family (G+ hangouts?) "Hey grandma, look at this giant ant leg" etc.

    The other alternative is ebay. A kid is much better off with a worn out but "real" microscope that's probably cheaper than a hunk of Chinese plastic anyway. Some people are weirdly proud of being completely mechanically inept... they are a bad target market for used scopes.

    Another alternative is new chinese steel. At a place like you can spend about the cost of a good video card and get a new, "real" student grade scope that'll last forever.

    Absolute worst case scenario is a cheap hunk of Chinese plastic with "900x" magnification listed on the box right next to ridiculous artists interpretations and electron microscope images. Oddly enough the marketing is just about as misleading and poor for other optical devices like telescopes.

    You mentioned "parameciums". Its easy to find samples of plain ole dirt, grass leaves, etc. If you want "real prepared slides of weird or interesting organisms", go somewhere like, "life sciences" "microscope slides". Note that a good prepared, preserved, stained slide is gonna be like $5 per slide. There are somewhat dodgier suppliers at a somewhat lower cost, but not as cheap as you'd think. On the other hand, my kids find it infinitely more interesting to run around in the yard, pick something up off the ground, and look at it under the 'scope.

    Maybe the best place to start a kid with microscopes is a hand held magnifying glass. Much as you're supposed to "do astronomy" by starting with eyes first, then binocs, then get a scope...

    I have no financial connection with any of the above other than spending money on stuff like this.

  • Humm 7 y.o (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JamesP ( 688957 ) on Sunday June 10, 2012 @10:18AM (#40274333)

    Get a toy one

    At 7, it will be great

    Get preferabily one with >= 50x mag, so you can see cells, etc

    Later you can think of a better one

    I really don't remember how old I was when I got my first (toy) one, but it was a built-it-yourself kit

    Then I got one that was 100x-300x-600x (which was 'more real') and it was lots of fun

    • by ve3oat ( 884827 )
      I would suggest that the quality of a first microscope is very important. I have to tell you that my first microscope (at about age 8) was wonderful. It was ordered from the Eaton's catalog (we live in Canada) and it was *very simple* with a single magnification (60x, if I remember) but with very good optics. I and my brother learned so much from that little instrument! A few years later I was given a "better" one with three objective lenses on a turret for 100x-200x-300x magnification and a kit of acce
      • I got a reasonably decent scope when I was around 7. It was great. Cheap scopes on the other hand are just not worth the bother, they'll barely work and nothing loses kid's interest faster than some cranky finicky thing that won't produce interesting results even if you do fiddle with it for an hour. There's really just no reason to skimp that much either when decent stuff can be had for a couple bills and the cheap worthless junk is still just about the same price.

        God, the smell of Canada balsam still take

        • by JamesP ( 688957 )

          You're assuming that access to good equipment is equally affordable in all countries.

          But well, I could get results from the finicky microscope, good results, I'd say

          Apart from the optics, a good source light is essencial

          • Eh, my experience with finicky 'scopes is that you really never get decent results. Best one I've ever had was a beat up old 50's bio lab scope that the local college dumped when they upgraded their biology building. Cost, nothing. OTOH you can spend $150 on a new 'toy' grade scope and you'll be lucky if you ever manage to focus on anything or get enough light into it to see much. While something like EBay is always a crap shoot you're more likely to get something you can have some real fun with for your mo

            • The sort of cheapy scope I had was great, as long as I used my desktop lamp instead of the built in light source which was way too weak.
              • Yeah, the one I had didn't even HAVE a built-in light. Still worked reasonably well. Something like this would probably be a good bet:


                Everything you basically need, good optics. You'll need a light, but honestly a desk clamp and a decent LED light will do fine. Not too pricey and you can get good results without too much fiddling. Should be fairly rugged too.

                • by JamesP ( 688957 )

                  Yeah, a light source and good optics go a long way

                  Also, good sample preparation is essential. I guess most of the problems are there.

                  For a light source, forget about the "built in" methods. Even a desk lamp goes a long way. And if you try different positions you can get great results, or even go for reflected light instead of transmitted light (depending on the sample)

                  • Oh yeah, I still have the desk lamp, lol, though the 'scope itself finally did succumb to curious children with small tools... lol. I can remember all sorts of tricks to lighting. Well slides are a great idea. You can also get plastic cover slips, which are probably not a bad idea for kids, though I'm sure they are generally inferior. Even with my bad childish sample prep though we managed to make some pretty interesting observations. Helps to have a set of prepared slides though. Damn it was fun being a k

    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      The thing is optics in a microscope are fragile. The controls are build for adult like dexterity and size and strength. A kid can use it, I was doing microscopy in elementary school, but never really working the controls. If you want the kid to be fully engaged with the instrument, you have to buy an instrument made for the kid.

      I would also suggest that unless the primary goal i to teach how to work a microscope, mount slides, that sort of thing, a less traditional style might be in order. The eyeclop

      • by JamesP ( 688957 )


        I remember that in school we were instructed on how to use the microscope, but it's very easy to mishandle it

        So, for kids, go for an affordable choice

    • by dbc ( 135354 )

      So.... I'm thinking you're not a parent, and that you are not speaking from actual experience. This is pretty much the exact opposite of advice I gave below. A toy microscope will be nothing but frustration and will kill the child's interest. My daughter had a proper microscope at 7. I had a proper microscope at 8. A toy microscope is nothing but demotivating frustration in a box.

      Motor skill considerations are key, though. I'm on the board of a small science education non-profit, we teach kids from ag

  • I'm not sure of your budget or whether you are looking at this for yourself or your son, but a trinocular scope allows human binary focus on the subject/target as well as a digital imaging output that can be displayed on a dedicated Workstation or PC. These images can then be captured and later analysed.

    This is what my techs use at work for FA on PCAs... but YMMV with "bacteria to paramecium's".


  • I'm a geek and while I love the idea of USB microscoped, the cameras in them aren't all that great. It costs money to do right. I'd think that you can get a beautiful unpowered optical microscope on eBay or Cragislist. Make sure it's got 2 oculars and 3 or 4 objective lenses, with immersion. For use inside, a LED flashlight works quite well as a light source. You'd also be well advised to read up on stains. They make optical microscopy way more fun.

  • Hay Infusion (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 10, 2012 @10:28AM (#40274419)

    I can't comment on modern microscopes because I haven't used one in years. But whichever one you decide on, be sure to concoct a hay infusion. Get a jar full of pond water and add a handful of hay or even grass clippings. Put it aside somewhere in the garage where it can stink without bothering people too much. It will yield up the most wonderful assortment of one-celled critters for your microscopic viewing pleasure--paramecia, volvox, those wonderful beings called stentors--and lots of other great stuff besides.

    I write this with appreciation for the best high school biology teacher of all time, Mr. Ford, whose hay infusion was legendary for the amazing odors that emanated from it. He would periodically add more pond water or hay. A beatific smile would come over his face, and he'd say, "Oh, yeah. That's really ripe!" In all fairness, he also taught me the virtues of meticulous notes and drawings. But I suspect most of his students remember his hay infusions. Enjoy!!

    • I'm jealous. My high school biology teacher was an ultra-Christian disbeliever of evolution, and because she taught deep in the bible belt in Georgia, she was allowed to impose her stupidity on us in almost every lesson. I'll never forget how she started the chapter on Evolution in our textbooks: "Now, the law requires that I cover this nonsense, but before we begin, let me tell you what really happened [puts down biology text, picks up her ever-present bible] 'In the beginning, God created the heaven an

    • Ah yes, I have fond memories of my own long-running "pond water" brew. It was all well until I brought it to school, and my friend convinced me to fill a girl's desk with it. The nun wasn't amused... :-)

  • Edmund Scientific (Score:4, Informative)

    by westlake ( 615356 ) on Sunday June 10, 2012 @11:03AM (#40274657)

    In 2000 Edmund Scientific was purchased by Science Kit and Boreal Laboratories, a western New York based science supply company. Science Kit and Boreal Laboratories is part of a group of companies that provide science supplies to elementary, middle, and high schools as well as colleges and universities.

    Edmund Scientific [] sells high quality beginner and student microscopes in all price ranges.

    Edmund's prepared slide sets [] have been in their catalogs for decades. You really can't go wrong here.

  • My father got us a real microscope. One that used batteries for the light or we could flip the light and use the mirror. It worked great and we took care of it and it was still in working condition the last time I saw it 10 years or so ago. I am now 45 so it was a quality built one, very sturdy. Children can be taught to respect their equipment, I would say for the first little while you supervise until he understands that he needs to be careful with it. Preparing slides you should probably help him with fo
    • by pooh666 ( 624584 )
      One thing I can never understand is this idea that if you give a kid anything remotely sharp, they will suddenly start cutting off limbs. I cut myself WAY more often as an adult then when I was 10.
  • Sounds like you want a microscope and want him to get the experience of getting to look through Dads cool microscope. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it justifies a better toy since you aren't woried about him playing with it on his own and destroying it. If that were the case, I would say get a $30 toy...

    I bought a cheap "celestron" with webcam. The camera mount came apart when I put it together. I returned it tot he store, the second one had a broken camera. It was a $30 toy.

    So my wife, se

  • I doubt there have been many technology advances so the advice is probably still current [], but it will be interesting if there are.

  • I have a boom microscope that I use for electronics work which is very popular with my kids for looking at bugs, etc. I got mine from for something like $350.

    I also have a biological style microscope which is higher power and lit from below. My kids didn't seem to have as much interest in this. Generally, one cell looks pretty much like another unless you really know what you're looking for.

  • by dbc ( 135354 ) on Sunday June 10, 2012 @12:03PM (#40275061)

    Get a decent microscope. "Child friendly" means "not frustrating" -- good light, smooth focus, good light, real optics, and good light. Mechanical stage for bonus points, because little fingers have a hard time moving the slide around in tiny increments.

    Stereo vision isn't a big deal, but with a child of 7, I *strongly* suggest getting a "dual head" microscope. This is designed for teaching, the student has one viewing tube, and the other viewing tube can be used by the teacher or the eyepiece of the second tube can be replaced with a standard microscope video camera eyepiece. That way a parent can help with focusing, which is tricky for kids to learn. You can also talk about what they are seeing and give them a guided tour.

    Remember that real optics will give a much, much sharper view than any USB microscope or video eyepiece, so adjust expectations accordingly, but we've found that it is a much more fun family activity when the microscope is set up with video in the second tube so that everyone can see and talk about the video while taking turns looking at the eye-poppingly sharp view through the optic path.

    We bought our home microscope here: []
    they seem to have decent prices on nicer microscopes.

    • For my 7-year-old son, I got a "My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope" from Amazon (same as a low-end one you can get from the hometrainingtools link above). This is a good little microscope, but I didn't break the bank on it. My prudent decision was worth it - he really enjoyed it but only for a while. We still keep it around and pop things into it from time to time, but it isn't his favorite thing (he likes Snap Circuits better). If I had spent a lot more money, it might have felt wasted. If he had loved
      • This is what I got my 6 year old daughter (the Duo-Scope). While not a professional quality instrument, it is quite capable. The inclusion of the top-down lighting has allowed us to view numerous opaque objects (pennies, all manner of insects, etc) and a prepared slide set has provided plenty of opportunity to explore. I'm in about $100 for the scope and the slides and it's been very much worth the cost. My daughter finds new things she wants to look at with the microscope every week.
  • American Science and Surplus has a nice collection of used microscopes (and lots of other very cool stuff) at very low prices. Their inventory changes frequently.

    Celestron makes a $50 webcam-like (USB) eyepiece camera for telescopes, but it works nicely with microscopes as well. Celestron also sells inexpensive mechanical microscopes.

    For thin specimens or slices, you want a compound microscope. For stereo images, you need a stereomicroscope (a.k.a. dissecting microscope). The two have very different d
  • I had the same quandary not too long ago. In the end, I decided to start small and work up. On ebay you can find cheap 60x and 100x pocket scopes which are a good starting point. The resolution and quality sucks, most come with led lights, some come with UV lights, however it is a very good starting point being portable and cheap.

  • I bought this upright microscope for a 9 year old: Biolux NV 20x-1280x Microscope [], she loved it!

    It has a USB ocular which Linux recognised straight away. Feels nice and solid, with only a tiny bit of hysteresis on the adjustment knob. Nothing a child couldn't cope with.

    Optics are surprisingly good quality and the light sources use a little mains adapter, which is included. No batteries required!

    There are also a few sample slides included with the microscope, but Bresser sells stained slide kits separatel

  • Don't they still sell the Tasco microscope kits they had when I was a kid?

    I had one; it was a fairly decent microscope, and it came with slides, example specimens, cover slips and other stuff you need to mount and observe your own samples. It came with a manual explaining how to look at random things you might find in nature.

    I'll be sad if you can't get these anymore! They were fairly well-made, too; real metal construction, the focus control was nicely damped and greased, etc.

  • Dad was doing his master's work at the university of Hawaii when I was 6 or 7. He'd bring us kids into the lab and let us look at drops of water in the microscopes there. A couple years later they got me one of my own. It was actually a pretty nice model for the time, though definitely less beefy than the ones at the university. That was like, 30 years ago. I wonder how the state of the art has advanced since then... I'll just google on "USB Stereo Microsocope" and *SQUEEE*!

    I'd make a joke about maxing ou

  • You won't be able to see bacteria without a 400x - 1000x objective.
  • Perhaps you can cultivate a sense of DIY by showing how you can make a microscope using an optical mouse [].
  • Hi,

    there are many proffessional microscopes availible on ebay, and they come at a very reasonable price too,
    - USB--Scopes: forget the USB-Trash .. if USB-Scope.price > 30 US$ then don't take it.

    You can get laboratory grade equitment there for arround 100 US$, binoculars and microscopes as well.

    You are operating it ? -> Try it the other way arround, he will learn more quickly from his OWN mistakes, rather than from yours.

    You are just a supervisor(to prevent dead serious injuries of course), adviser

  • Minneapolis I would gladly loan you one, plus slides, cover slips and preserved specimens. Is a well cared for college lab scope. A beautiful old Nikon oil immersion. Just reply to this and we can get in contact.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Made by Russian company Lomo (that also makes good amateur-grade telescopes): tough, cheap, with decent optics and lighting.
    There's also a cheaper version called Yunnat (Young Naturalist), but that's a bit weak.

  • I bought one of these for my niece:

    I was very impressed with the quality. I would also recommend a prepared slide kit and
    a slide making kit.

  • Buying a used but well maintained lab microscope gives you solid optics, stability and motivation to use. If it's kept in a visible place, it'll trigger the want to use it.

  • []
    For kids, this is the right one.
    - easy to hold
    - no small parts
    - looks funny
    - usb
  • I think any microscope should work for children. You just need to make sure you slice the children thin enough to fit between the glass slide plates.

  • Don't worry, kids are pretty tech savvy these days. Just get him an electron microscope and he'll be able to figure it out in a jiffy. Plus he'll think you're the best dad ever!

  • I got my kids the when they were that age. Has a cool light tube to direct light instead of a mirror or light bulb. Has a nice gear-less mechanism for adjusting focus. Uses easy to find threaded objective lenses. Pretty much indestructible..

  • I suggest a different and much cheaper initial approach: a virtual microscope. Companies like Aperio have created digital slide scanners with freeware web viewers. Many labs and universities use these scanners to create educational virtual slide banks. Do a web search for "virtual slidebox" and follow the links to thousands of diagnostic quality microscopy slides, often with explanations of what to look for. As for a true microscope for home use, I would stay away from light microscopes. Economical +
  • Ebay has inexpensive stereo microscopes resembling this one: [] I have a similar one that I got new for around $40. The magnification is a modest 50x, and it has fairly short focus length and depth but it serves well for electronic and mechanical repair and minor surgeries (splinters, hang nails)
  • We got this one and are pretty happy with it: []

    It's not stereo, but is well-made and inexpensive. Definitely a cut above a mere toy. My kids don't use it often, but we've had it a couple years and they still pull it out occasionally when they have something to look at. I would say 7yo is old enough to start operating this kind of microscope too rather than just viewing (isn't he really going to want to do that anyway?), so something inexp

  • I was about his age when I got my first microscope and a few years later a chem set. Made out of bakelite from the 1940s or 1950s the light source was from a mirror below. Don't go and by the best. You won't get so mad if something happens to it. Get one with a light. Mine was missing slides and had none of the tools with it. I got very resourceful. A local hobby shop had stuff. Expensive though. No internet back then.

    Being the scientist that I am today I can fast forward you a bit. You can put two sta

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