Kent State Professor Uses Cellphones to Make Science Affordable

If you ask Christopher Fenk, science is something that should be accessible to everyone. Through his research on using cellphones as lab equipment, Fenk is striving to provide classrooms with affordable alternatives to equipment that can cost between $1,200 to $2,000 per piece.

Fenk, a chemistry professor at Kent State University at Tuscarawas, used his faculty sabbatical to enhance the learning experience of others. Through his research, he discovered a mechanism to conduct spectroscopy experiments with a cellphone, bubble wrap and a cardboard box.

Inspired by research conducted by chemist George Whitesides at Harvard University, Fenk wanted to find practical uses and experiments that can be conducted with a cell phone. Whitesides developed research that stemmed from a hope to help people in developing countries conduct basic chemistry experiments, including water testing.

“Being a chemist, I’m always curious about things,” Fenk said. “When I was eligible for my sabbatical, I was really looking for just the right project that could not only be published, but could get undergraduate students involved.”

He knew of Whitesides’ research and looked for similar experiments involving spectroscopy, the science of measuring spectra produced when matter interacts with or emits electromagnetic radiation. Using nothing more than two cellphones, bubble wrap and a cardboard box, Fenk has been able to detect the concentration of food coloring in water and the amount of tabletop sweetener in beverages.

Fenk extended Whitesides research to include standardized protocols incorporating basic spectroscopic principles. In Fenk’s experiments, two cellphones are used: one as a light source and another for the camera. Through his Conceptual Chemistry grant program, Fenk has been able to take these findings into classrooms with limited budgets, enhancing the learning experience for students in grades four through nine.

While the results of this research will have a positive impact on children across Ohio, students from both The University of Akron and Kent State also participated in this project and received the benefit of additional learning experiences by assisting in the production of these laboratory results.

Joshua Menefee, currently attending the University of Akron, assisted Fenk in his initial phases of research. At the time, Menefee was enrolled in Fenk’s courses as a high school senior, participating in the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program offered through Kent State at Tuscarawas.

“Being in the lab with Dr. Fenk gave me a chance to apply the lessons I was learning in the classroom to real life applications,” Menefee said. “Assisting Dr. Fenk with this really helped me solidify my major when going in to my college career.”

Currently, Kent State post-secondary students Sarah Worrell and Jared Norman are assisting Fenk in continuing his spectroscopy research.

“What we’ve done is eliminate the need for expensive laboratory equipment,” Norman said. “We’ve used cellphones, which everybody already has, and we’ve used cardboard boxes – which are imaginably cheaper than thousand-dollar equipment. By cost alone, this research will help make science and research more accessible.”

Fenk serves as the co-director for the Conceptual Chemistry program, focusing on developing scientific skills in students from elementary to high school.

“I have trained more than 400 teachers throughout the Conceptual Chemistry program,” Fenk said. “For this specific technology, I have taught more than 100 so far, mostly in Northeast Ohio with the highest concentrations in Stark and Tuscarawas counties.”

Fenk has also presented his findings at various science education conferences.

“Every time I have presented on the topic, we get pretty good attendance. It’s encouraging seeing that people and educators are so engaged in this. You can really do state-of-the-art analysis with just a cellphone and a cardboard box,” Fenk said. 

POSTED: Monday, April 24, 2017 04:22 PM
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2022 09:45 PM