Release Date: November 19, 2019
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Snow, ice and winter lights aren’t the only things that sparkle in November in Western New York.
At this time each year, students in Jeff Yap’s science class at Williamsville South High School also get to work growing crystals for a national competition. Over five weeks starting in October, the teens cultivate their entries, growing the crystals in beakers filled with a solution of aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification.
The contest is particularly exciting because of its local roots.
The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition was founded in 2014 by University at Buffalo chemist and crystallographer Jason Benedict, who continues to organize the annual event. This year, the contest will reach about 150 teams — representing thousands of K-12 students and teachers, and homeschooling families — in 33 states.
Media are invited to visit Yap’s science class on Wednesday, Nov. 20 to observe the crystal-growing process, talk to students and meet Yap and Benedict.
When: 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20.
Where: Williamsville South High School at 5950 Main St. in Williamsville. Media should check in at the main office and ask for Jeff Yap’s class.
Yap happens to be the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition’s defending second-place winner in the “Teacher Crystal” category, with his 2018 crystal weighing 28.12 grams and earning a score of 6.37 out of 10 for quality. The year before, his Teacher Crystal placed third, and his class won for “Cool Crystal.” (“We put highlighter ink into the crystal, and when you put ultraviolet light on it, it glowed,” Yap explains.)
Benedict, PhD, an associate professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, will also be on hand to discuss the contest and why he founded it.
Why: Growing crystals is an awesome way to learn about science.
“Crystals are all around us and profoundly impact our lives,” Benedict says. “They surround us, from sugar to snow. They’re the basis for computing. Pharmaceutical drugs are often in crystalline form. This contest gives kids a chance to grow crystals in a fun and exciting environment, and given the centrality of crystals to so many technologies, it’s important to train a generation of kids to be knowledge in this science.”
Yap’s class is leveraging the competition to study a different but related topic: The students are learning about solutions, including what it means for a solution to be unsaturated, saturated and supersaturated. The process of growing a crystal relies on this knowledge.
To cultivate their contest entries, students must first dissolve powdered alum into water, creating an alum solution. As the water evaporates, the solution becomes “supersaturated,” and bits of the alum emerge from the water to form a solid crystal.
“A lot of times, as soon as the students get to class, they check their crystal, which is kind of neat,” Yap says. “Some are really into it. It’s nice to see other schools from around the country not just participating. This competition is always very friendly and supportive on social media. The banter between teachers around this and other competitions like Science Olympiad and the trebuchet contest is part of the fun of these events.”
Yap first learned of the crystal-growing competition when he attended a lecture Benedict gave a few years ago to a local science group.
Yap has participated annually since finding out about the contest, and he’s turned it into a family endeavor: His kids, Timothy, age 11, a student at Amherst Middle School, and Ellie, age 9, a student at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School, placed fourth and seventh, respectively, in the K-8 category last year.
Sponsors: The contest is sponsored by the UB Department of Chemistry, the Georgetown Department of Chemistry, the University of Central Florida Department of Chemistry, the Texas A&M University Department of Chemistry, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, the American Crystallographic Association, the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society, Bruker, The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, Krackeler Scientific Inc., Rigaku, the National Science Foundation and Ward’s Science.