Photo of Project CRYSTAL participants
Project CRYSTAL Returns to the Holden Laboratory in Biochemistry

The successful middle school outreach program called Project CRYSTAL has returned to the Holden Lab in the Department of Biochemistry. Professor Hazel Holden and a group of motivated undergraduates are showing six adventurous eighth graders the basics of biochemistry and X-ray crystallography throughout the 2017-18 school year.

Project CRYSTAL (Colleagues Researching with Young Scientists: Teaching and Learning) brings dedicated students to the laboratory once a week to learn about the basics of chemistry and biochemistry at an age-appropriate level. When the students finish the program in May and enter high school, they will have an understanding of the central dogma of biology and of the differences between proteins, DNA, and sugars, as well as advanced concepts like cloning and X-ray crystallography.

“What really motivated us to start this program is we believe students need exposure to chemistry earlier in school,” says Holden. “We think they are ready to learn basic chemical concepts to build confidence so they are eager to pursue further studies in science. We work to make it interesting to them and capture their imagination.”

Photo of biochemistry professor Hazel Holden
Professor Hazel Holden

The program started in 2009 and lasted several years but then took a brief hiatus. Holden has revived the program with the help of undergraduates, who gain valuable teaching, mentoring, and science communication skills during the program. Together, Holden and the undergraduates carry on the Wisconsin Idea, using what they learn in the lab to inspire younger students to pursue a career in science.

“The thing I have enjoyed most about working with the middle schoolers is watching them grow as scientists, and it has been fun working with the kids as they learn science from the periodic table to proteins,” says Thomas Anderson, an undergraduate working in the Holden Lab and mentoring for the program. “A worthwhile skill that I am developing is how to teach people. I have always thought that a great way to improve your knowledge about something is to teach it, and as Project CRYSTAL progresses I am learning how true this statement is.” 

During the school year, the students begin simply learning about the atom and quickly learn how to inoculate cell cultures and run laboratory tests. The year of discovery then culminates in the students growing their own crystals and building protein models on a stereo graphics system. Each weekly meeting involves both group discussions and time in the laboratory.

Project CRYSTAL alumni and their parents say the program provides great inspiration to pursue science. Success stories include a student who is now attending Rice University and another, Epiphania Malaika Maka, was accepted to four Ivy League schools and other top colleges by the time she was a senior in high school.

Photo of Project CRYSTAL participants in their lab coats
The middle school students pose in their lab coats for a
photo on one of their first days in Project CRYSTAL. 

“Something I really love about the program is how much time we spend doing things in the lab rather than sitting in a classroom,” says Caleb Olsen, a middle school student currently in the program. “I'm really excited to continue attending Project CRYSTAL because it's a lot of fun, and I think having this information and experience can really help me in future science classes or if I pursue a career in science.”

Holden hopes that other labs on campus and at different universities will take an interest in the program and says some have already been trying it. Others are taking inspiration from the program and exploring different directions, such as bringing middle school teachers into the laboratory. The program model and use of undergraduates can easily be adopted by any lab.

“It’s unlikely they will remember every single thing they learned but that isn’t our goal,” explains Holden. “What they gain is confidence in their ability to learn and understand chemistry and biochemistry. They’ve also gotten to see what laboratory research can be like. When they begin to learn these concepts in the classroom at school, terms and processes they hear will feel familiar and more approachable. We started this program to help young students lead the pack in science and math, and we like to think we are doing just that."