Happy Anniversary, Bugscope!

ESEM image of a portion of a Monarch butterfly wing scale from a Bugscope session with Harringotn Middle School, Mt. Laurel, N.J. The larger divisions (roughly horizontal) are about 1.6 micrometers apart. The smaller parallel components (angled) are about 70 nanometers apart. Cover image is an image of a moth tongue.
ESEM image of a portion of a Monarch butterfly wing scale from a Bugscope session with Harringotn Middle School, Mt. Laurel, N.J. The larger divisions (roughly horizontal) are about 1.6 micrometers apart. The smaller parallel components (angled) are about 70 nanometers apart. Cover image is an image of a moth tongue.

A Bugscope session is entertaining, educational, often amazing, sometimes frustrating for the adults, and always fascinating. In short, a Bugscope session is much like any one of the thousands of schoolchildren who have taken part in the unique Beckman Institute educational outreach program.

Educational Outreach Program Still Going Strong after 10 years

For a decade now, Bugscope has literally handed the keys to a powerful, research university-level microscope to thousands of K through 12 students from all over the world. Using Web browsers on their school computers, students can remotely control the scanning electron microscope (SEM) operated by Beckman’s Imaging Technology Group (ITG), ask questions of ITG staff members via a chat window, and enter a microscopic world usually seen only by trained scientists.

Begun in March of 1999 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Bugscope is celebrating 10 years of bringing – free of charge – the power of remote access microscopy to school classrooms in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Ten years after its first session, Bugscope is still wowing children and their teachers with two nanometer-scale resolution of an awe-inspiring world of wasp’s eyes, spider’s claws, and many more sights that the vast majority of these students would otherwise never encounter.

According to Scott Robinson, manager of ITG’s Microscopy Suite where the SEM is housed, “every Bugscope session is a little bit different” – just like the kids who take part in the sessions on an almost daily basis during the school months.

Turning the controls of a scanning electron microscope over to schoolchildren can make for a ride that is sometimes a little wild and bumpy, but almost always fun, and always educational. Logging in to a recent Bugscope session is all it takes to realize that, as Robinson and fellow ITG staffers Cate Wallace, Chas Conway, and Alex Lazarevich, as well as entomologist-in-residence Annie Ray, answer questions from their individual computer stations.

Student: wow! thats soo awesome! it really zooms in!
Student:
what is this thing???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
Scot:
weevil...
Scot:
this is one of the weevils you guys sent
Student:
what is a weavel???????
Annie:
a weevil is a beetle in the family curculionidae. They are the most diverse group of insects on the planet!
Student:
do you have fun looking at the bugs
Student:
wooowww!
Annie:
Yes, it is fun to look at insects
Student:
It looks dead
Cate:
all the insects we put in the microscope are dead. If they weren’t they would be too juicy for the microscope to pump down to a vacuum state, and they would also die because of the lack of air...

And if the students start to lose interest, the Bug Operators, or BugOps as the Bugscope team members are called, know just what to do. 

“If someone says that he or she is bored we may give that person control of the microscope, assign some responsibility to that person,” Robinson said. “What’s really cool is that often that person will rise to the occasion. All of a sudden the dynamic changes because then all of the kids want to drive the microscope.”

Student 8: put 8 in control
Student 8:
put 8 in control...
Student:
It is fun to control
Student:
do you have fun lokking at bugs
alex:
oh yeah, this is a blast, we love doing bugscope...
Student 15:
can 15 be in controll
Student 9:
thanx i am now in control!!

Halfway through a recent session, the “driver” at the school who was in charge of guiding the SEM moved it out of range of the on-screen sample.

Cate: Whoops, the end of the world. (:

Robinson leapt out of his chair and sprinted from his office across the hall to the Beckman basement room housing the SEM, and manually reset the microscope. Soon the students and teachers were looking at an image of a wasp’s eye rendered with amazing clarity and detail. A question was asked about whether each of the little lens squares they were seeing that make up the eye are actually individual eyes.

Scot: each is a separate ‘lens’
Scot:
you can see that there are many hundreds to thousands of individual facets, individual ommatidia
Cate:
there are still some mysteries as to what the compound eye sees, most think that each lens will see a part of the “picture” and relay each part back to the brain where it is put together

Later in the session Ray, a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at Illinois, responds to a question from the third grade class asking if all insects have a thorax.

Annie: All insects have head, thorax and abdomen. All insects have six legs and one pair of antennae. Those are the requirements for being an insect!

A couple of minutes later time is up for this session of Bugscope and all parties say goodbye, thanks, and then sign off.

According to the Bugscope Web site, “Bugscope allows teachers everywhere to provide students with the opportunity to become microscopists themselves – the kids propose experiments, explore insect specimens at high-magnification, and discuss what they see with our scientists – all from a regular web browser over a standard broadband internet connection.”

Teachers make an application for their classes to take part in a Bugscope session, with some classes sending in samples of bugs and other items they have scavenged from their homes, yards, and elsewhere, or they may see samples provided by the BugOps and others.

Not all of the samples are of insects. A growth of coral was sent in from one classroom, while the BugOps like putting a sample of anti-caking salt from Wendy’s in the SEM because, Robinson said, “it looks like an Aztec carving instead of a boring cube.”

Ray said she brings in “mosquitoes, abandoned specimens from my department, glowworms which are actually beetles, owl flies, lice, bed bugs, ticks,” and some bugs that, she added with a laugh, “I collect off of myself.”

Prior to each session the samples are prepared using a gold-palladium coating, the samples are placed in the SEM, images of some samples are pre-set for quick reference, and once the class logs in, the fun begins.

The teachers and/or students are in charge of navigating, focusing, magnifying, and other controls of the SEM, while they interact with the BugOps via a chat window that is just below whatever image the SEM is focusing on at the moment. A Bugscope session may have the teachers relaying the questions and doing all the driving or – and this, the BugOps say, is the most fun – it may feature the students doing the driving and asking the questions themselves.

“It’s very energizing. You’ll have three or four people responding and everyone is trying to answer these questions as soon as they come up,” Ray said. “It’s think on your feet, rapid-fire questioning. We have developed this thing of knowing who is going to answer what question.”
— Annie Ray

Ray usually takes part in Bugscope sessions from her lab in Morrill Hall or at her apartment. Other BugOps like Robinson, Wallace, and Conway usually join in from their respective offices, while Lazarevich is usually handling things in the room housing the SEM and its operating computers. While the BugOps sit at their computers, students and their teachers in places like Illinois and Hawaii and Spain fire questions at them, while they race to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible.

Robinson said their approach to students is to let them learn by doing.

“We don’t go in and say now we are going to teach you about silkworms. That would be trying to frame the discussions for the students,” he said. “We don’t want to be talking down to the students. The idea of having chat lines and not dictating to the students is that it brings the students in where they are participating and it’s democratic; they can talk and we can talk.”

There is a rapport between the BugOps that has been ongoing since Robinson and former full-time ITG staff member Daniel Weber worked on the original Bugscope sessions.

“We had a friendly competition, joking around and trying to answer questions faster and more completely,” he said. “Daniel is good-natured and I just went along with Daniel. The kids could see that we were having fun.”

Robinson said being a good BugOp requires certain qualities. “You want to have good people skills and you have to be patient.”

Ray, who will get her Ph.D. in entomology in May, is the only long-term, trained entomologist Bugscope has ever had.

“I had heard that some mythical program existed over at Beckman from some members of my department,” Ray said. “So I came over to look at some of the insects I work on and then I got to know some of the people down in the Microscopy Suite. I just wanted to help out however I could because I thought it was a really great program and a great opportunity, and they needed an entomologist too.

“I said ‘do you need somebody to help out with Bugscope’ and they were like ‘yeah, sure, log in if you want.’ It just worked out. Our personalities meshed. The rapport that we have in a session is really good.”

The Bugscope sessions can get pretty charged sometimes.

“It’s very energizing. You’ll have three or four people responding and everyone is trying to answer these questions as soon as they come up,” Ray said. “It’s think on your feet, rapid-fire questioning. We have developed this thing of knowing who is going to answer what question.”

The chat is designed so the BugOps can highlight a question they want to answer in pink. Students are color-coded in blue and teachers in red in the chat window, while the Adminz, as the BugOps are called, are in green. Each session is archived with transcripts and images of the chat as it took place. Teachers may return to the Bugscope Web site to use their session over and over. The students and teachers’ names are kept anonymous.

Robinson said there have been more than 420 Bugscope sessions with more than 250 classrooms taking part since 1999. He said the most common question they get from the students is: “What do those hairs do? Annie Ray actually wrote a paper called ‘What do those hairs do?’”

So what do those bug hairs do?

“They are the means that the insects have for assessing their environment,” Robinson said. “They are purely sensory. They could be thermal receptors for hot or cold, or they could be detectors for pheromones, some multi-chemo sensor. All these things we see we don’t always realize what they are.”

The Bugscope project has undergone changes over the years as far as technology development and growing to include classrooms from all over the world. But the basic mission has remained the same: show students that science can be exciting as well as educational, and that even scientists can have fun.

“We want them to have a great experience, we want them to see something that they have never seen before or had the ability to do before,” Robinson said. “We want them to understand that they are actually driving this $600,000 microscope and that these aren’t just canned images. We want the kids to just have an awesome time.

“The reward for us is when they start asking ‘well what did you have to study in school in order to be able to do this.’ It gives us a lot of energy and is the most fun thing that we do during the week. We want that enthusiasm to carry over to the kids and we want the kids to see that being a scientist is a viable option and that we’re not these stuffy people in white coats who don’t talk to anybody.”

Student:  how long have you been a scientist
Annie:
I started graduate school in 2003, but I studied biology in college. And I started college in 1999. So about 10 years...
Student:
annie what is your major study?
Annie:
I study chemical communication in longhorned beetles
Student:
how long have you been a scientist
Annie:
I started graduate school in 2003, but I majored in biology in college
Student:
scot how long have you been a scientist
Scot:
I have been doing this for a long time
Scot:
I got hired to help set this up 10 years ago

“(ITG) wanted to do technology development but in 1998 when this was conceived and in 1999 when it started, this was something people didn’t know. There weren’t many examples of this — remote access scanning microscopy wasn’t done. In a lot of ways it’s unique and that’s what has kept it going.” — Scott Robinson

It was a little over 10 years ago that Robinson came to ITG and Beckman, and shortly thereafter that a powerful new electron microscope was added to the Microscopy Suite arsenal.

“Ten years ago today,” Robinson said on Jan. 12 while pointing at the Bugscope room north of his office in the Microscopy Suite’s Beckman basement digs), “within a few days of that, I was pulling the microscope in on a pallet into that room.

“We already decided what we were going to do with the microscope; we were going to start this thing called Bugscope. The microscope was funded by NSF specifically for Bugscope, to be able to run Bugscope. Of course we were going to use it for other things but we bought it to run Bugscope as a sustainable outreach program.”

A decade after it debuted, Bugscope is fulfilling the mission that was first envisioned for it in 1999. The idea for an online scientific educational outreach program featuring remote access microscopy was hatched in the 1990s with Chickscope, a technology development program that used magnetic resonance imaging to view samples.

Robinson said the cost to maintain Chickscope was prohibitive, so a proposal was made to the National Science Foundation for an environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) that would be used in an innovative new educational outreach program that would allow students remote access to an electron microscope via an Internet connection.

“(ITG) wanted to do technology development but in 1998 when this was conceived and in 1999 when it started, this was something people didn’t know,” Robinson said. “There weren’t many examples of this – remote access scanning microscopy wasn’t done. In a lot of ways it’s unique and that’s what has kept it going.”

Robinson said the grant proposal was for an environmental electron scanning microscope (ESEM) because they were promoted as not requiring specimen preparation, but he and others had to make some changes to the original concept.

“The conductive and non-conductive samples showed them that that wasn’t going to work and there was limited time to use the microscope in wet mode, so we are using an ESEM as a scanning electron microscope,” he said. “What’s really cool about this thing now is this is first class. It’s an ESEM but it is also a field emission electron microscope that has much, much better resolution than a normal electron microscope.”

The ESEM is now part of ITG’s Microscopy Suite array of high-powered instruments for high resolution imaging of micro- and nanoscale samples. It is used for other projects but its main purpose is for Bugscope sessions. Robinson said the first session was March 19th,, 1999, with Central Academy in Champaign.

Technology development has been an important part of Bugscope’s growth over the years. Conway, who has been with Bugscope since his sophomore days at University High School, is credited with co-designing the Bugscope redevelopment effort in 2007. According to the Bugscope site, “At this point every piece of software code that powers the Bugscope project was written by Chas, and his sense of style is evident throughout.” 

“We are always going to be surprised and pushed and challenged by the questions the kids have. You are so strongly motivated to make it better and better that you wish you had an encyclopedic knowledge of insects. We realize we might run into things that some people have never seen. Some of these aren’t studied much. It’s fascinating and it’s never ending. We want to keep this level up as high as we can.”
— Scott Robinson

Lazarevich has contributed in a big way to Bugscope, generalizing the program’s tools for use with other, similar projects. As systems administrator, he is the sessions’ technical expert and, as the Bugscope Web site, says “ensures that Bugscope has computers that work, disks with space, and a network that keeps the images and chat flying back and forth.”

Robinson has been a guiding force behind Bugscope since he joined Beckman in late 1998. It’s clear he is passionate about the program and wants the next Bugscope session to be better than the last one. 

“It’s sort of like you are only as good as your last session,” he said. “You really want to have a great interaction with the kids and you want to have good, complete answers.”

In addition to K-12 students taking part in Bugscope, it is also being used by education professor Michelle Korb at Marquette to acquaint pre-service teachers with the program. Also, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute are using remote access to look at SEM lines of cancer cells.

After a decade Bugscope is still going strong and plans are to keep it that way. 

“We think that the basic idea of what we’re doing is sound,” Robinson said. “We don’t want to reengineer something that works really well. What we want to do is refine it.

“We are always going to be surprised and pushed and challenged by the questions the kids have. You are so strongly motivated to make it better and better that you wish you had an encyclopedic knowledge of insects. We realize we might run into things that some people have never seen. Some of these aren’t studied much. It’s fascinating and it’s never ending. We want to keep this level up as high as we can.”

This article is part of the Spring 2009 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.