Spectrophotometry is a cross-cutting analytical technique, which finds use in disciplines ranging from chemistry to pharmacy, biochemistry, food science and physics. The SpecUP (Spectrophotometer of the University of Pretoria) is an educational spectrophotometer which was developed so that students could build their own instruments from components in a kit, and then utilise it to generate analytically useful results. This initiative allows for institutions to have more spectroscopy equipment available, as the SpecUP costs less than $40 as opposed to ~$2 000 which is the cost of an entry-level commercial instrument. This is of particular importance in a developing country context, where student numbers are typically high and resources are scarce. In addition, the SpecUP has moving parts and an open design which allows users to understand what is inside the “black box” of commercial instruments and to discover what happens when they adjust components, allowing for active, inquiry-based learning. The SpecUP user network currently spans South Africa, Tunisia, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Kenya, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Turkey and Italy.
Students often regard laboratory instruments as “black boxes” which generate results, without understanding their principles of operation. This is a concern, as the correct interpretation of analytical results and the limitations thereof is invariably based on an understanding of the mechanism of measurement. Moreover, a number of tertiary institutions in Africa have very limited resources and access to laboratory equipment, including that related to the field of photonics, which prevents students from getting hands-on practical experience. This paper addresses both of these challenges, by allowing students to assemble a low cost spectrophotometer, called the SpecUP, which is then used in a range of chemistry-related experiments. Students can vary instrumental parameters to observe the effects these changes have on their experimental results. The SpecUP costs less than 50 euro to build, as compared to ~3 000 euro for commercial systems. Examples of the results obtained using the SpecUP in applied chemistry experiments are briefly presented here.