Simple Microscope Experiment

Simple Microscope Concept

Things like lenses and mirrors can bend and bounce light to make interesting things, like compound microscopes and reflector telescopes. Telescopes magnify the appearance of some distant objects in the sky, including the moon and the planets. The number of stars that can be seen through telescopes is dramatically greater than can be seen by the unaided eye.

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Did you know you can create a compound microscope and a refractor telescope using the same materials? It’s all in how you use them to bend the light. These two experiments cover the fundamental basics of how two double-convex lenses can be used to make objects appear larger when right up close or farther away.


  • A window
  • Dollar bill
  • Penny
  • Two hand-held magnifying lenses
  • Ruler.


  1. Place a penny on the table.
  2. Hold one magnifier above the penny and look through it.
  3. Bring the second magnifying lens above the first so now you’re looking through both. Move the second lens closer and/or further from the penny until the penny comes into sharp focus. You’ve just made a compound microscope.
  4. Who’s inside the building on an older penny?
  5. Try finding the spider/owl on the dollar bill. (Hint: It’s in a corner next to the “1”.)
  6. Keeping the distance between the magnifiers about the same, slowly lift up the magnifiers until you’re now looking through both to a window.
  7. Adjust the distance until your image comes into sharp (and upside-down) focus. You’ve just made a refractor telescope, just like Galileo used 400 years ago.
  8. Find eight different items to look at through your magnifiers. Make four of them up-close so you use the magnifiers as a microscope, and four of them far-away objects so you use the magnifiers like a telescope. Complete the data table.


What’s Going On?

What I like best about this activity is how easily we can break down the basic ideas of something that seems much more complex and intimidating, like a telescope or microscope, in a way that kids really understand.

When a beam of light hits a different substance (like a window pane or a lens), the speed at which the light travels changes. (Sound waves do this, too!) In some cases, this change turns into a change in the direction of the beam.

For example, if you stick a pencil is a glass of water and look through the side of the glass, you’ll notice that the pencil appears shifted. The speed of light is slower in the water (140,000 miles per second) than in the air (186,282 miles per second). This is called optical density, and the result is bent light beams and broken pencils.

You’ll notice that the pencil doesn’t always appear broken. Depending on where your eyeballs are, you can see an intact or broken pencil. When light enters a new substance (like going from air to water) perpendicular to the surface (looking straight on), refractions do not occur.

However, if you look at the glass at an angle, then depending on your sight angle, you’ll see a different amount of shift in the pencil. Where do you need to look to see the greatest shift in the two halves of the pencil?

Why does the pencil appear bent? Is it always bent? Does the temperature of the water affect how bent the pencil looks? What if you put two pencils in there?

Depending on if the light is going from a lighter to an optically denser material (or vice versa), it will bend different amounts. Glass is optically denser than water, which is denser than air.

Not only can you change the shape of objects by bending light (broken pencil or whole?), but you can also change the size. Magnifying lenses, telescopes, and microscopes use this idea to make objects appear different sizes.


Disclaimer and Safety Precautions

Warning is hereby given that not all Project Ideas are appropriate for all individuals or in all circumstances. Implementation of any Science Project Idea should be undertaken only in appropriate settings and with appropriate parental or other supervision. Reading and following the safety precautions of all materials used in a project is the sole responsibility of each individual. For further information, consult your state’s handbook of Science Safety.


  • Put on protective eyewear. Conduct the experiment on the plastic tray and in a well-ventilated area.
  • Keep a bowl of water nearby during the experiment.
  • Keep flammable materials and hair away from flame.
  • Avoid looking directly at burning magnesium to prevent eye discomfort.
  • Do not attempt to extinguish the solid fuel and magnesium — let them burn down completely. Do not touch the stove after the experiment — wait until it cools down.
General safety rules
  • Do not allow chemicals to come into contact with the eyes or mouth.
  • Keep young children, animals and those not wearing eye protection away from the experimental area.
  • Store this experimental set out of reach of children under 12 years of age.
  • Clean all equipment after use.
  • Make sure that all containers are fully closed and properly stored after use.
  • Ensure that all empty containers are disposed of properly.
  • Do not use any equipment which has not been supplied with the set or recommended in the instructions for use.
  • Do not replace foodstuffs in original container. Dispose of immediately.
General first aid information
  • In case of eye contact: Wash out eye with plenty of water, holding eye open if necessary. Seek immediate medical advice.
  • If swallowed: Wash out mouth with water, drink some fresh water. Do not induce vomiting. Seek immediate medical advice.
  • In case of inhalation: Remove person to fresh air.
  • In case of skin contact and burns: Wash affected area with plenty of water for at least 10 minutes.
  • In case of doubt, seek medical advice without delay. Take the chemical and its container with you.
  • In case of injury always seek medical advice.
Advice for supervising adults
  • The incorrect use of chemicals can cause injury and damage to health. Only carry out those experiments which are listed in the instructions.
  • This experimental set is for use only by children over 12 years.
  • Because children’s abilities vary so much, even within age groups, supervising adults should exercise discretion as to which experiments are suitable and safe for them. The instructions should enable supervisors to assess any experiment to establish its suitability for a particular child.
  • The supervising adult should discuss the warnings and safety information with the child or children before commencing the experiments. Particular attention should be paid to the safe handling of acids, alkalis and flammable liquids.
  • The area surrounding the experiment should be kept clear of any obstructions and away from the storage of food. It should be well lit and ventilated and close to a water supply. A solid table with a heat resistant top should be provided
  • Substances in non-reclosable packaging should be used up (completely) during the course of one experiment, i.e. after opening the package.


Dispose of the reagents and solid waste together with household garbage.

Additional information


Chemistry, Mathematics

Materials Needed

# 3 12-inch long metal rods or thick wire: copper, steel, brass, or other metal.
# 8 identical Styrofoam cups
# Something to boil water in (a pot or kettle)
# Stove
# 4 instant digital thermometers
# Pitcher or other large container that will fit in the refrigerator
# Water
# Notebook and pen




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