Joey Spence, a student at Immaculate Conception, pours borax into an Erlenmeyer flask of hot water with the guidance of CU chemistry student Mitchell Long.
Proving that one can be neither too young nor too old to learn, kindergarteners through retirees took part in Clarion University’s Crystal Growing Competition this spring. Dr. Jacqueline Knaust, professor of chemistry, organized the competition.
"We aimed to introduce students and chemistry enthusiasts to the exciting world of crystallization," Knaust said. "The study of crystals is very important in the field of chemistry, because it helps scientists understand how atoms and molecules interact."
The goal was to connect with area science teachers to foster excitement about chemistry. Knaust hosted four Crystals at Clarion events, through which 99 people entered their crystal formations. In addition, students from 12 area schools submitted crystals. In all, 234 individuals participated. Individuals and teams entered their largest, most perfect single crystal and/or a cool crystal formation.
"Participants learned about crystal structures: In crystalline solids, atoms, ions or molecules are arranged in a three-dimensional pattern that repeats at evenly spaced intervals," Knaust said. "We are applying scientific principles as we use a variety of techniques to achieve crystal formation."
Three local alumni partnered with Knaust and her students to organize and run the competition: Clarion chemistry degree holders Jesse Alden ('10, M.Ed. '14) and Kristen Hurrelbrink ('11), chemistry teachers at Clarion-Limestone Jr./Sr. High and Allegheny-Clarion Valley Jr./Sr. High, respectively, along with Darlene Sharrar ('92), senior chemist at Analytical Testing Service, Franklin. Alden and Sharrar are also adjunct instructors for Clarion University.
"Crystals at Clarion participants were able to make a 'cool crystal formation' that was entered into the crystal growing competition," Knaust said. "First, participants designed their formations from pipe cleaners, which served as a base for the Borax crystals. They made saturated solutions of borax using equipment in the general chemistry laboratory. This involved dissolving borax in hot water. Finally, the pipe cleaner formations were suspended from fishing line in the hot borax solutions. As the solutions cooled to room temperature over 12 to 24 hours, crystals formed on the pipe cleaners."
Winners of the most perfect crystal include:
- K-5th grade – Austin Perry (first); Nathaniel Shambaugh (second); Hailey Perry (third); all from Cranberry.
- 6th-8th grade – Elijah Shambaugh (first), CCA.
- 9th-12th grade – Sam Barker and Tyler Sweeney (first), West Shamokin; Desirea Meabon (second), Cranberry; Braden Murry, Susie Kandor, Roemicha Baum and Sierra Verostek (third), A-C Valley.
- Adult – Samuel Vaal, David Heroux, Emma Timmel, Samantha Delaney and Zoe Emory (first), St. Michaels College Chem Club; Jeff Hankey (second), West Shamokin teacher.
Winners of the coolest crystal formation include:
- Tiffany Bandi (first), CU alumna; Josh Harold (second); Alayna Dowdall (third), CU student.
- K-3rd grade Honorable Mention – Kira Null (Clarion Elementary) and Samantha Patton (Immaculate Conception, Clarion).
- 4th-6th grade Honorable Mention – Kathryn Fenske (Immaculate Conception, Clarion) and Kadin Drake (A-C Valley)
- 7th-12th grade Honorable Mention – Madison Hurrelbrink (A-C Valley) and Chris Pederson, Dominic Grubbs, Dylan Burton, Brandon Anderson and Travis Schwartz (West Forrest).
- Adult Honorable Mention – Brandon Gohn and Hope Kiesling (Clarion University students).
"There is beauty in science, and there is science all around us even if we don't notice it," Knaust said. "For example, the ice cubes floating in iced tea are large crystals of frozen water, and the sugar added to sweeten the tea is tiny crystals of sucrose."
The crystal growing competition was funded by a Clarion University Community Fellows Grant and Undergraduate Research Grant. Students Riley Bessetti, Katie Graham and Alex Day were in the inorganic chemistry class where the idea for the project was formulated; Bessetti took the lead on writing the student grant, then helped to implement the project. Many chemistry majors and minors helped with the Crystals at Clarion events.