Young Scientists and Artists Compete to Send Crystals into Space

Winners Announced at Annual Awards Ceremony

By Tatum Lyles Flick

Winners of Crystal Growing Competition
Winners of the 2018 Crystal Growing Competition received prizes and accolades at the awards ceremony in May. Photo by Tatum Lyles Flick.


May 18, 2018, Madison, WI — Each year, students across Wisconsin compete to grow the largest, highest-quality crystal or to produce innovative crystal-inspired art in the Wisconsin Crystal Growing Competition. This year marks the fifth year of the contest, and the second year students could win a chance to work with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the sole manager of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, to send crystals into space for further experimentation. Event organizers announced six student space contest winners and 12 others who placed in the competition, at the May 18 awards ceremony.

Students who won the chance to collaborate with CASIS and their Space Station Explorers (SSE) education program in early 2019 include: Joseph Quinn of Whitefish Bay; Kaitlyn Twesme of Lake Mills; Payton Kelly-Van Domelen of Sun Prairie; Kristin Kiley of Madison; Star Frasier of Manawa, and Kaela Greenfield of Hartford. Student winners at all levels receive science and chemistry books, monetary prizes from the American Chemical Society WI Local Section, and certificates.

The free competition, hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemistry Molecular Structure Laboratory, offers two age-based categories, 11-13 and 14-18. Students register for the competition each February, chemical supplies arrive in March, and they have until the end of April to complete and submit the assignment. All participants are invited to attend an award ceremony each May, which includes department tours and an array of science demonstrations and a presentation about the International Space Station by CASIS senior research scientist, Dr. Marc Giulianotti.

This year, 209 middle school teams and 169 high school teams competed, with more than 655 total participants.

Judges choose winners in three categories: best overall crystal, best quality crystal, and best crystal-related art. They review crystals for quality without assessing mass and for quality and mass. A crystal of the highest quality has the recognized crystal shape and symmetry of that chemical. Artwork entered into the competition can use any medium including photography, poetry, multimedia, paint, or even clothing design.

“The opportunity to collaborate with CASIS, visit their facility to prepare the experiments for the ISS, and observe the launch is priceless,” said Dr. Ilia A. Guzei, UW-Madison Department of Chemistry Molecular Structure Laboratory director and manager of the contest. “Last year three of the six winners were able to go to Florida. The crystallization vessels we prepared for the International Space Station included the experiment and the winners’ fingerprints.”

The contest introduces students to the scientific method, expands their vocabularies, and teaches them safe laboratory practices, about solution chemistry, to work in teams, to keep a lab journal, and to learn to fail and analyze, then grow from that failure. They also learn to use chemistry reference books to find out about the substances they use to start seed crystals. In addition, space project winners learn to communicate science to the public through poster presentations, talks, blogs, social media activities, and interactions with the media.

Student Presents Poster
Payton Kelly-VanDomelen, winner of the 2017 space crystal contest, presents her poster at the 2018 awards ceremony. Photo by Tatum Lyles Flick.

“My intention was to inspire school students to go into the sciences,” Guzei said. “There are many sports competitions, but few science competitions for middle and high school students, and thanks to our generous sponsors, entry into the contest is open to everyone. Our sponsors care about future generations of scientists and want to promote science education.”

Current event sponsors include: The American Chemical Society WI Local Section, The American Crystallographic Association, Bruker, The Cambridge Crystallographic Date Centre, The Evjue Foundation, The University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemistry, Hestia Labs, The Institute for Chemical Education, Leica Microsystems, Rigaku Oxford Diffraction, Sigma-Aldrich, CASIS Space Station Explorers, and ZEISS.

Dr. Dan Frankel, Senior Sales Representative of Bruker, says his company has sponsored the competition since it began, five years ago. “Public outreach is important for us for promotional as well as future growth,” Frankel said. “Sparking interest in science as early as possible in a child’s education can only lead to good things. We believe in furthering STEM education and especially in helping further the Wisconsin Idea. Our business is a long-term investment. Hopefully, the crystal growers of today are the crystallographers of the future!”

The crystals from last year’s winners recently returned from space. Dr. Guzei will have them analyzed to see how their growth in space compares to their growth on earth, and will share that new knowledge with students.

Conditions on the International Space Station affect the normal processes by which compounds crystallize, generally higher quality crystals. Currently, scientists study these processes on the International Space Station to learn more about the materials and to identify possible new drug creation methods.

“We want to see whether crystals grown in microgravity differ in quality from those grown during ground control experiments, and if so, what the differences might be,” Guzei said. “If there are differences, investigating why will be another learning opportunity for the students.”

A complete list of the 2018 winners include:

  • Middle School (ages 11–13)
    • Best Overall Crystal
      • 1st prize: Joseph Quinn, home schooled, Whitefish Bay
      • 2nd prize: Owen Jones, Velma Hamilton MS, Madison
      • 3rd prize: Payton Kelly-Van Domelen, Bright Minds Academy, Sun Prairie
    • Best Quality Crystal
      • Kaitlyn Twesme, Lake Mills MS, Lake Mills
    • Best Quality Teacher’s Crystal
      • Cheryl Kelly-Van Domelen, Bright Minds Academy, Sun Prairie
    • Best crystal-inspired art
      • 1st prize: Payton Kelly-Van Domelen, Bright Minds Academy, Sun Prairie
      • 2nd prize: Jeremiah John, home schooled, Kenosha
  •  High School (ages 14–18)
    • Best Overall Crystal
      • 1st prize: Kristin Kiley, Joana Pashaj, Edgewood HS, Madison
      • 2nd prize: Madelyn Wade, Melody Dunk-Chapman, I. Case HS, Racine
      • 3rd prize: Alexis Frasier, Lexi Pirk, Manawa Little Wolf Jr. Sr HS, Manawa
    • Best Quality Crystal
      • Star Frasier, Alexandria Rae, Manawa Little Wolf Jr. Sr HS, Manawa
    • Best Quality Teacher’s Crystal
      • Michelle Klysen, Oshkosh North HS, Oshkosh
    • Best crystal-inspired art
      • 1st prize: Kaela Greenfield, Hartford Union HS, Hartford
      • 2nd prize: Avalon Border, Border Home School, Kenosha
      • 3rd prize: Taylor Hart, Medford HS, Medford


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