Stanford University
IntroSem on Zoom

Students in Professor Wendy Mao's spring-quarter Diamonds seminar shared their models via Zoom.

Beyond the Bling

An undergraduate IntroSem looks deep into the structure, properties, and politics of diamonds. What happens when the pandemic shuts down the lab?

BY Elizabeth de Oliveira
ClockSeptember 25, 2020

The title of Professor Wendy Mao's undergraduate introductory seminar says it all in one word: Diamonds. The course covers the stones' exceptional properties, industrial and technological applications, and often tragic politics. It also uses the gems as a window into the Earth’s interior (where they form before traveling to the surface via volcanoes) and the origins of the Solar System. A rich curriculum to be sure, and one typically enhanced with plenty of hands-on learning.

Professor Wendy Mao
Wendy Mao is a professor of geological sciences and of the photon science directorate. She is also a principal investigator in the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences. Photo by Holly Hernandez/Stanford University Communications.

"We usually have a practical component using equipment in my laboratory and in the school’s shared facilities," says Mao. Typically, she would also have the students handle specimens and view other rocks and minerals in the university's collections. Of course, COVID-19 changed all that just weeks before the first day of class. "This year, we had to work with pictures and previously collected data," she says. 

Mao did find one way to help students get a feel for the material, though, mailing each student a ziploc bag containing chemistry-set pieces with which to build molecular models. The students used those pieces to recreate the crystal structure of diamond while together on Zoom.

"We connected carbon atoms to show, on the atomic level, how the way they are bonded together influences the macroscopic behavior of diamond as a material," explains Mao. "To my relief, the course went really well despite the challenges of teaching remotely," she adds. "I cannot say enough about how much this class made me appreciate our amazing undergraduates. They were engaged, worked hard, and were very gracious."

"The class was fun and was a great destressor in the time of COIVD-19 Zoom classes," reported one student. If Wendy and Dara [her teaching assistant] try this hard and work this effectively over Zoom, it makes me wonder how much greater this class would be in person."

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, 650-497-9541

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