(or, A Guided Inquiry Approach to Teaching How to Think About Analytical Instrumentation.) Wired has a great article about a scientist at the University of Illinois / Urbana-Champaign who published software and plans for turning a cell phone camera into a simple DIY spectrometer.
The camera simply takes a photo, and the resulting JPEG is analyzed by a Windows program. The software and source are available under Creative Commons on the project’s website.
“Science is basically about using your senses to see things – it’s just that we’ve got so much technology that now it’s all hidden,” Scheeline said. “The student gets the impression that a measurement is something that goes on inside a box and it’s completely inaccessible, not understandable – the purview of expert engineers.”
“In order to get across the idea, ‘I can do it, and I can see it, and I can understand it,’ they’ve got to build the instrument themselves,” he added.
This is a fantastic example of how to encourage people to learn by taking a complex idea and breaking it into simple (and fun!) to reproduce steps.