Campus News

Crystal competition offers socially distanced chemistry for kids

Various sizes of crystals on a white background.

Crystals grown from aluminum potassium sulfate. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published September 21, 2020

Jason Benedict holding a crystal.
“Now, more than ever, with so many kids being at home, they need fun, hands-on scientific activities. 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. ”
Jason Benedict, associate professor
Department of Chemistry

Looking for a hands-on science project to do with your children this fall? The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is back.

Held annually since 2014, the contest challenges K-12 students and teachers to grow the biggest, most beautiful crystals they can using aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification.

This year, the contest takes on new meaning, with many schools across the country operating under a remote or hybrid learning model, says founder Jason Benedict, a UB chemist with two school-aged kids.

“Now, more than ever, with so many kids being at home, they need fun, hands-on scientific activities,” says Benedict, associate professor of chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. “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. You can do this as a family.

“Crystals are really special objects where all of the ions or molecules are lined up in repeating patterns. 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.”

The contest is open to K-12 students and teachers, whether they are back in the classroom or learning at home. Participants can register for the competition by filling out the 2020 entry form and ordering bottles of crystal-growing material for $8. The deadline to order alum is Oct. 1.

Glowing crystals.

Williamsville South High School science teacher Jeff Yap demonstrates glowing crystals his class created using highlighter ink for a past edition of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition. Photo: Douglas Levere

Crystal-growing begins on Oct. 19, coinciding with National Chemistry Week, and goes on for five weeks. In addition to categories judging crystals by size and quality, the contest will again include a “coolest crystal” category that awards participants for cultivating crystals with a creative flourish, whether that means coloring crystals, trapping an object inside of them or implementing some other innovation.

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.

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, Benedict says.

Submissions will be judged at UB.

The 2019 competition reached about 150 teams — representing thousands of K-12 students and teachers, and homeschooling families — in 33 states.

Growing crystals in jars.

Crystals grown by Williamsville South High School students dangle in beakers filled with a clear solution of aluminum potassium sulfate (alum) in 2019. This photo was taken in science teacher Jeff Yap's classroom, but families and children can also grow crystals at home. Photo: Douglas Levere

Growing crystals: A tiny sparkle in dark times

The experience of growing a sparkly, single crystal from scratch can be memorable for children.

Each team or participant starts with 100 grams of powdered alum. To grow a crystal, kids dissolve the material into water, then let the water evaporate. This causes the compound to emerge from the solution to form a crystal.

It’s work that requires patience and finesse: If the water evaporates too quickly, too much of the alum will crystallize, causing imperfections such as occlusions or jagged edges (think rock candy). Go too slow, and you’ll get a miniscule crystal.

“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 says.

Here are some how-to videos for growing large, single crystals:

The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is sponsored by the American Crystallographic Association (which is based in Buffalo), the National Science Foundation, VWR and Ward’s Science, the UB Department of Chemistry, 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.