One of the earliest success stories from our group of Smart Gigabit Communities was the development of an application that let students in Chattanooga, Tennessee view and manipulate a 4K microscope located across the country at the University of Southern California (USC), School of Cinematic Arts*. The project has come a long way since those early days, and Chattanooga has turned its attention to expanding access to the application to additional public schools across the region.

There is now a 4K Olympus microscope housed at STEM School Chattanooga, where it’s hooked up to a camera and large monitor display. Instead of connecting to USC, the microscope links to three other public schools in Hamilton County, giving students in those locations the ability to remotely maneuver microscope slides and view artifacts from pond samples in gorgeous 4K resolution. Two more schools are scheduled to join the cohort soon, and the five remote locations include both urban and rural settings, with a focus on Hamilton County’s Opportunity Zone — the two high schools in the bottom 5%, statewide.

With the 4K microscope, Hamilton County students have access to research capabilities normally limited to graduate students or researchers. The tool is so rare that there isn’t much literature out there about how to use it, so STEM School students are creating their own educational videos and posting them online.

And, while educators are heavily involved in designing projects, the students themselves are helping to lead the charge. Students at STEM have been trained as lab assistants, and work directly with students and teachers at the other schools. These connections are bridging gaps in technological access as well as expanding otherwise separate worlds.

“It’s all very exciting to be part of this new process and to get to see it at its roots,” says STEM School student Hailey Rigsby.

The 4K microscope project has been a collaborative effort, with support coming from NSF, US Ignite, and Mozilla, as well as local partners like EPB, the Tennessee Aquarium and, crucially, Hamilton County Schools.

Chattanooga’s hope is that this project can serve as a hub, with impact outside of the immediate school system. It also showcases what can happen when gigabit applications move outside of the lab, are built and tested in real-world settings, and are developed through engagement with end users from the outset. Access, inclusion, opportunity — these are the hallmarks of a US Ignite Smart City.

*A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the 4K microscope was hosted at the Annenberg Lab at USC. It was and is at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.