By TOM DINKI
Published September 28, 2023
UB crystallographer Jason Benedict initially set out to start a Buffalo-area crystal growing competition, figuring it’d be a fun activity for some local kids.
Ten years later, the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition provides a hands-on science project — and in recent years, something of an art project — to thousands of K-12 students, parents and teachers across the country.
“It turns out kids, parents and educators enjoy growing crystals as much as I do,” says Benedict, associate professor of chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. “Through social media and word of mouth, we’ve gained more and more entries every year. It’s really a magical experience.”
The 10th annual competition starts Oct. 15, once again coinciding with National Chemistry Week. Participants will then have five weeks to turn 100 grams of powdered aluminum potassium sulfate — alum, for short — into a large, sparkly alum crystal.
“It would be great if some of these kids grow up to be crystallographers, but at the end of the day, this is just about getting them engaged in and having fun with a STEM activity,” Benedict says.
Once their crystals have grown, participants will mail them in for judging — a maximum of three submissions per household or classroom. Judging alternates between UB and the universities of Benedict’s fellow organizers, known as “crystallites.” This year, the judging will take place at Georgetown University, where crystallite Karah Knope is an associate professor of chemistry.
There are separate categories for “Best Overall Crystal” and “Best Quality Crystal.” A few years ago, organizers added a “Coolest Crystal” category that has produced some imaginative submissions, from a crystal snowman to a crystal Infinity Gauntlet. One year, someone submitted a cicada shell encased in a crystal, Benedict recalls.
Last year, participants submitted over 160 crystals for judging, a new record. But Benedict notes that number is often undercut because some just can’t bear to part with their crystals.
“That's how enamored some of these kids get with the crystals: They don't even want to send them in,” says Benedict, adding that it’s a good problem to have. “If they really liked it, if it really connects with them, that's great.”
The contest’s organizers include Jason Benedict and Tasha Benedict, UB; Karah Knope, Georgetown University; Michael Nippe, Texas A&M University; Jeff Rack, University of New Mexico; and Fernando Uribe-Romo, University of Central Florida.
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 Department of Chemistry; the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry; the University of Central Florida Department of Chemistry; the University of New Mexico Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology; the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering; the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society; Rigaku; and individuals who have made donations.
More details about the contest, including entry information, are available at the competition’s website.