For five weeks, starting on October 19, teachers, students and families from across the US will be participating in a crystal-growing competition. The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition was founded by Jason Benedict, a University at Buffalo chemist with two school-aged kids.
In 2019, the event grew to about 150 teams, from 33 states.
Unlike most other events that have been disrupted by COVID-19, this particular event pretty much “carries on” as expected. Actually, with so many students at home, being taught by remote or hybrid learning models, it is anticipated that even more submissions will be received this year.
“Now, more than ever, with so many kids being at home, they need fun, hands-on scientific activities,” says Benedict. “Growing crystals means they can take a break from their screens and do an exciting activity that’s going to teach them something about crystals and crystal growth. [Anyone] can do this as a family.”
To get started, kids are tasked with taking 100 grams of powdered non-toxic aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), dissolving the alum in water, and then being patient as the water dissolves. Not only is “patience” one of the keys to the success of the home experiment, so is a creativity. While some students choose to make the most beautiful crystals they can, in their natural state, others get a little funky with coloring crystals, or trapping objects inside.
“Crystals are really special objects where all of the ions or molecules are lined up in repeating patterns,” says Benedict. “People are exposed to crystals in a variety of ways in their daily lives. Snowflakes, for example, are all crystals. Salt and sugar are crystals. There are crystals inside of computers. Pharmaceuticals are crystalline. Well-tempered chocolate is an example: The snap of a well-tempered piece of chocolate is because the chocolate has a particular crystal form inside of it.”
Anyone looking to enter the competition, which kicks off on October 19 (coinciding with National Chemistry Week) can fill out the 2020 entry form and order bottles of crystal-growing material for $8. The deadline to order alum is October 1. Submissions will be judged at UB.
Benedict says that during the competition, teachers, students and families can share their excitement with the community of crystal-growers by posting updates on Twitter using the contest’s hashtag, #2020USCGC.
“If the participants have half as much fun growing their crystals as we do receiving them, we’re going to have a lot of happy kids, parents and teachers,” Benedict adds, as he prepares for the competition to commence.
Winners in various categories will be able to choose between cash prizes or hands-on magnetic science models that kids can manipulate to learn about crystal structures. There are different categories for judging, including size, quality, and “the coolest crystal.”
The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is sponsored by the American Crystallographic Association (which is based in Buffalo), the U.S. National Science Foundation, VWR and Ward’s Science, the UB Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown University, the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry, the University of Central Florida Department of Chemistry, the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society, Bruker, The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, Krackeler Scientific, and Rigaku, along with individuals who have made donations. To make a gift to support the contest, visit the competition’s fundraising page.
Lead image: Crystals grown from aluminum potassium sulfate. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo