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Science at Home: DIY Labs and More

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
December 27, 2010 Deadline
February 2011 Issue

Science at Home: DIY Labs and More

Model rockets, a microscope, a telescope, motorized kits and various computers enabled my explorations of science and technology while growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

During the 1990s, the popular television shows “Beakman’s World” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” built on the tradition of “Mr. Wizard.” These programs showed young people they didn’t have to wait for school science fairs to do something fantastic. The science projects were decidedly low-tech, using items like cardboard tubes and plastic soda bottles.

Today’s amateur scientists can assemble a do-it-yourself lab rivaling any television show, a lab more like “C.S.I.” than the simple lab table of Mr. Wizard. And, as with any hobby, there are online communities dedicated to home science labs. Many of the participants in these groups are active in the homeschooling movement. Also, many of the people involved work in science, engineering and related fields.

I recommend visiting the websites GeekMom.com and GeekDad.com, both sponsored by Wired online magazine. GeekMom writers include Kari Byron, of “MythBusters” fame. Many of the articles posted explain at home experiments ranging from low-tech to high-tech.

Being a home scientist is not cheap. A lab for an elementary student might cost $1000, while a high school or college-level lab can cost $3000 or more. A high-tech home science lab also requires plenty of space for the equipment.

The first thing you need for a serious home lab is a good computer. Most of the scientific instruments have USB ports, so you will want one or more good USB “hubs” that convert a single USB port on your computer to several more. The hub should be powered and meet the USB 2.0 or 3.0 standard. I suggest seven or more USB ports for the home scientist.

Most home science labs begin with an affordable USB microscope. These microscopes combine optics with precise digital cameras. The USB connection allows a microscope to display images on a computer screen.

One popular model among homeschoolers is the Digital Blue QX5, which sells for under $100. For under $500, some great USB microscopes can be found online. The popular Motic DM52 attaches to a Mac or PC, allowing you to capture images magnified from 10 to 400 times.

Serious hobbyists suggest the Swift Digital M10L. Considered “affordable” at $1300, the M10L features a 5-megapixel camera, a small screen, and a secure digital (SD) memory card slot. The microscope functions like most digital cameras, storing still images or full-motion video to SD cards.

If you’ve watched “C.S.I.” you likely have seen them “scan” clothing or household items. The device used is the “visual presenter,” which is designed to photograph items that cannot be scanned or photographed easily. A presenter looks like an old-style photograph enlarger. It features a high-quality digital camera with a macro lens for extreme close-ups. The camera is mounted on an arm, which rises from a lit table. The presenter can be used to photograph mounted leaves, insects or delicate documents.

The optical perfection of a presenter isn’t cheap. The popular AVerMedia presenters range in price from $700 to $1500, with the more expensive models featuring the highest resolutions and greatest magnifications.

Maybe scanning flowers or bugs isn’t your idea of fun. Most people are interested in the weather, and amateur scientists are no exception. The home scientist can set up a complete weather station that sends data to a computer. This allows the user to study historical trends and compare microclimate data to regional weather reports.

The popular home weather stations are from Davis Instruments and RainWise, Inc. The kits from each company are modular, allowing you to add everything from wind speed anemometers to tipping rain gauges. These models are mounted outside, of course, and transmit data a short distance via radio signals to a receiver attached to your computer’s USB port.

A basic weather station costs $400. Complete systems equivalent to National Weather Service automated stations are available for $1500. These are complex systems, calibrated to federal standards. Not everyone needs to track temperatures to the nearest tenth of a degree, but you can with some of the sensors available.

Another popular home science subject is astronomy. Programmable telescopes that locate and point to selected objects are popular. One popular model among home scientists is the Meade ETX-80. The “AutoStar” keypad can be detached and connected to a computer to update the locations of known celestial objects. The ETX is $300, making it a good starter telescope. Most amateur scientist Web sites suggest spending $600 to $1000 for a Celestron or Meade computer-programmable telescope. Many telescopes in the $1000 class also support digital cameras, via adapters.

If an expensive, programmable telescope is too much, why not start with what you can see? The Celestron SkyScout is $250. You point the SkyScout to any celestial object and the device attempts to identify that object and any related objects. A USB port allows you to update the SkyScout database. An SD card can be used to load audio tours downloaded from the Web. The SkyScout also has GPS capabilities, allowing it to tailor information to your exact location.

There are also various planetariums for home computers. These devices project images of stars onto walls and ceilings. You can purchase basic, low-tech planetariums for $50 to $100, while the computer-controlled projectors cost $150 to $300. There are also numerous free software applications that display the night sky on your computer screen. Popular free planetariums are Stellarium and Celestia. Both free applications work on Windows, OS X, and the Linux operating systems.





Retailers specializing in science equipment:
Edmund Scientific, http://www.scientificsonline.com, offers kits and equipment designed for students of all ages. Supplies for all major scientific fields are featured.
Home Science Tools (HST), http://www.hometrainingtools.com, targets the homeschooling market, offering everything from state-approved curriculum guides to the supplies needed for experiments.
ThinkGeek, http://www.thinkgeek.com, offers “gadgets” and DIY kits for everything from simple computers to retro “Pong” video games. Assembly is the point.
Microscope World, http://www.microscopeworld.com.
Weather Shack, http://www.weathershack.com.

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