The scientist, the schoolchildren and the crystals

Prof Thomas Sorensen explained crystallography to a class of 9-11 year olds
Prof Thomas Sorensen explained crystallography to a class of 9-11 year olds

In December 2013, Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron, launched a competition which encouraged schoolchildren to try and grow homemade crystals. The initiative was a joint project between Diamond, STFC, Oxfordshire Science Festival, the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford’s Museum of Natural History and the British Crystallography Association (BCA). Schools across Oxfordshire were supplied with a crystal growing kit containing powders and Petri dishes, and children set about trying to make their crystals grow – a process which scientists in the labs go through every day.
 
But one school in particular enjoyed a special visit from one of Diamond’s leading scientists. On Friday, Clifton Hampden primary school welcomed Thomas Sorensen and two large bags of marshmallows, as he attempted to explain the concepts of synchrotron science and crystallography to 9-11 year olds in years 5 and 6.
Children grew their own crystals using Epsom salts
Children grew their own crystals using Epsom salts
 
Thomas lit up the room with his explanation of Diamond, conveying the size of atoms studied by scientists at the synchrotron by asking the children: “If all of the atoms in an apple were the size of marbles, how big do you think the apple would be?” “The size of a table” one replied, “the size of a classroom” said another. When told to think bigger, the answers came back: “15 football pitches” and “London plus 20 churches”. A murmur of excitement rushed through the classroom as Thomas revealed that the apple would be the size of the earth.
 
Thomas went on to explain the differences in structure between a crystal and a gas, liquid or solid. He had the children run around to represent the atoms in a gas; then he told them to become more compact to be a liquid and even more so to be a solid. Finally, he lined them up in regimented lines to represent the structure of a crystal, explaining, “This is why scientists crystallise our samples, so we can see all the atoms in a neat pattern.”
 
Children were then invited to make their own atomic crystal structures of carbon or table salt using marshmallows and cocktail sticks. The children later ate their edible structures as a reward for passing a pop quiz on crystallography, prompting cries of “Thomas, could you come every week?”
Speaking to the children afterwards, they seemed eager to learn more about science. One child commented: “Crystals are really fun. Now I know there are atoms in everything”, whilst another observed: “Diamond is huge – it looks like a big doughnut that a giant could gobble up!” Public Engagement Manager, Sarah Fell commented: “This competition, along with the scientist visits, is a fantastic way for Diamond to connect with Primary Schools – an audience we don’t normally engage with.”

 

Children made replica atomic structures out of marshmallows and cocktail sticks
Children made replica atomic structures out of marshmallows and cocktail sticks
In celebration of the International Year of Crystallography, Diamond is hosting a series of events for children and families at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, Abingdon Museum, the Oxfordshire Science Festival, and at the synchrotron - details of upcoming events are listed below. Through these activities, Diamond looks to inspire and engage people of all ages with the pioneering work that takes place at the big doughnut in Oxfordshire.
 
Diamond will announce events planned for April onwards later in the year.
 
About Diamond
Diamond Light Source, a joint venture between the UK Government and the Wellcome Trust, is located on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire. By accelerating electrons to near light-speed, Diamond generates brilliant beams of light from infra-red to X-rays which are used for academic and industry research and development across a range of scientific disciplines including structural biology, physics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, earth and environmental sciences. For more information, please visit www.diamond.ac.uk