Crystal growing contest gives middle, high school students a peek inside UW-Madison chemistry department

May 27, 2016 By David Tenenbaum
Darya Pronina of Waunakee Middle School and a friend look on as Dan Frankel, from the scientific instrument maker Bruker Corp., demonstrates a single-crystal X-ray diffractometer in the UW–Madison Chemistry Department. (Photo by Libby Dowdall)

Darya Pronina of Waunakee Middle School and a friend look on as Dan Frankel, from the scientific instrument maker Bruker Corp., demonstrates a single-crystal X-ray diffractometer in the UW–Madison Chemistry Department. (Photo by Libby Dowdall)

Hundreds of middle and high school students from across Wisconsin enjoyed some hands-on chemistry experience this spring through a crystal-growing contest organized by the University of Wisconsin–Madison Chemistry Department.

Working individually or in small teams, participants started growing crystals from two safe materials on March 1, says organizer Ilia Guzei, director of an X-ray diffraction laboratory at UW–Madison. Crystals were judged for size, shape, quality, and aesthetics.

Guzei notes that research, patience and perseverance are necessary to grow champion crystals. “We are using crystals as an accessible entry point into a number of physical-science processes and techniques, as well as an introduction to the scientific method.”

The contest attracted more than 600 students and teachers from 23 high schools and 12 middle schools as well as several home-schooled children. The 108 crystals submitted were evaluated by a judging committee for more than three hours at a campus event on May 20.

This bluestone, grown by Allison Kaelin of Oshkosh High School, received the high-school best-quality award. (Photo by Ilia Guzei)

This bluestone, grown by Allison Kaelin of Oshkosh High School, received the high school best-quality award.
(Photo by Ilia Guzei)

The participants and their parents and teachers toured Chemistry Department laboratories, including the glass-fabrication shop and the X-ray diffraction facility where researchers examine their own crystals.

“We are not only interested in crystals,” says Guzei. “We are also making the campus more accessible to smart, motivated students from around the state. When they approach graduation, we want them to think about science and higher education, and to think about attending one of the nation’s leading chemistry departments right here in their home state.”

The contest was supported by the UW–Madison Chemistry Department and several businesses and scientific organizations.

The contest challenged middle- and high-school students to grow a large, well-formed crystal of specified inorganic compounds. Separate, crystal-inspired art contests for each age group attracted nine submissions.

Eleven teams, comprising 27 students, won the various contests. The best overall crystals were grown by Brittany Kaatz, Brielle Behnke, and Enrique Botello of Berlin Middle School and by Kevin Kollmann of Fond du Lac High School. Unlike the best quality award, the best overall award takes into account weight, because good large crystals are more difficult to grow than small ones.

The middle school best quality award went to this alum crystal, grown by Kameron Hughes of John Long Middle School in Grafton. (Photo by Ilia Guzei)

The middle school best quality award went to this alum crystal, grown by Kameron Hughes of John Long Middle School in Grafton.
(Photo by Ilia Guzei)

The winning crystals and drawings are on display in the UW–Madison Chemistry Department.

Guzei wanted to strengthen ties with and among state science teachers as well as with students, and teachers responded positively. “Just wanted to send you a thank you for all you have done to offer a fantastic experience for the students, and of course for us as teachers,” wrote Dean Doersch of Shattuck Middle School in Neenah.

“The students who have been able to go to the open house were amazed at the equipment in the crystal lab and the willingness of the staff to share their expertise with the students,” wrote Janene Perkins of Montello High School. “Thank you for giving a small district like Montello the opportunity to be involved in the contest.”

Plans for the fourth annual contest are being developed.