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Frugal science: A lab on paper

Aishwarya Segu

Low exposure to research, often due to the financial constraints of college laboratories, and extensive curriculum can make studying biology unexciting for students. This short article on​‘frugal science’ describes how paper, a cheap and familiar material, has been developed into instruments to study nature and stimulate creativity and curiosity in students.

Aishwarya frugal science title image
Photo credit: Arpan.basuchowdhury via Wikimedia Commons, under CC-BY-SA 4.0 International license.

Science fairs showcasing the potato clock and floating eggs have left a lasting impact on many of us during our school years. These hands-on scientific experiments were not only easy to perform but also kindled our curiosity and made science engaging and accessible. However, over the years, this excitement for science tends to wane, and the curiosity gets buried under the load of coursework. As a result, students begin to see science as an exhaustive and rigid subject rather than dynamic and exciting. The extensive curriculum, rote approach to learning, and weightage to theoretical knowledge over experimental and experiential knowledge are some of the most discussed contributors to declining scientific interest in the current student community, including at the undergraduate level. Economic aspects too present a roadblock for more research exposure at the undergraduate level. Frugal science is an emerging approach to science education, where both these problems are addressed.

What is frugal science?

Frugal means as much as is necessary. Frugal science prioritises using simple and cheap everyday materials to solve problems.

Frugal science ensures:

  1. Affordability: Usage of easily available materials makes it budget-friendly and accessible. Although it uses simple methods, it does not compromise on the quality of research. It further enables hands-on training. 
  2. Interdisciplinary education: Frugal science often spans multiple scientific disciplines, encouraging students to explore the interconnectedness of physics, chemistry, biology, and environmental science and mathematics. This holistic approach enriches their understanding of the natural world. 
  3. Community Engagement: As the experimental approach is not limited to the laboratory settings, students have the opportunity to share their work with the community and contribute towards finding a solution to pre-existing social problems.
Thus integrating frugal science as a curriculum aligns with educational goals and learning outcomes of science education.

    How can frugal methods be adapted to enhance the education system at the undergraduate level?

    Field explorations, community engagements and citizen science projects are some of the areas widely explored by frugal science. Paper – a simple everyday material – is one of the most versatile and valuable materials in frugal science. The following examples show how.

    Foldscope is a microscope assembled entirely from paper through origami. It was developed by Manu Prakash and his colleagues at the Stanford University. The constructed microscope provides a space for observing a sample in a glass slide. Its lens can be tightened or loosened using the thumbs to obtain focus. Foldscopes offer up to 2000X magnification and can easily visualise microscopic objects. The detailed functionality and working protocol can be found here. Due to its affordability and convenience, it has become a great exploratory tool for people of all ages and backgrounds. Furthermore, the foldscope inventors have prepared elaborate teaching plans to help educators around the world to impart knowledge with its help. 

    A foldscope
    Photo credit: Sockenpaket, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    Another great example from the same inventors is the paperfuge. This handheld centrifuge made entirely of paper can spin samples to speeds close to 125,000 rpm. As blood components can be separated at this speed, it can be useful for diagnostic purposes. The paperfuge is currently on trial for the diagnostics of blood samples across remote villages in Madagascar.

    µPAD is another product of frugal science. µPAD is a paper-based diagnostic tool, which can be used in basic biochemical analyses. The construction is based on the capillary action of the filter paper. The filter paper is engraved with liquid paraffin to create channels wherein reagents can be added. Upon addition of samples the reaction occurs in the specific channels and results obtained. As the reaction is completely dependent on filter paper and reagents it can be easily adapted to teach basic blood and biochemical tests.

    The traditional education system can sometimes unintentionally suppress the curiosity and creativity that is so vital to scientific explorations. Frugal science has the potential to not just build curiosity, but also empower students and teachers with technical and practical skills. It therefore offers hope for reinventing undergraduate education in the country. 

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