The Life and Times of Percy Julian

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Activity 3C (Reading and Interactive)
What Is Synthesis?

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Lesson Overview This lesson describes chemical synthesis in terms of building or breaking down molecules and discusses the value of chemical synthesis. Students will have a chance to play an interactive game that is analogous to the process of chemical synthesis.
Learning Objectives

To show students what the work of many chemists consists of, on a molecular level. To show students that chemical synthesis often requires multiple steps and that each new part of the new compound must “fit” with the new substance.

Lesson Concepts
  • chemical synthesis
  • chemical reactions
  • molecules
Materials Required Computer access.
Skills Required Basic computer skills.
Time Required Allow 10–15 minutes for the reading and 15–20 minutes for the interactive.
Student Ability Level and Grouping

This activity is appropriate for average middle school students.


This reading dovetails with the readings What Is Organic Chemistry? and Synthetic vs. Natural: What’s the Difference?

Procedure Notes

Explain to students that after the reading they will be playing a game on the computer. The objective of the game is to put together a screwdriver in the fewest steps possible. The handle of the screwdriver is given as the basis for the “synthesis.” The “bit” of the screwdriver does not match the handle. The students’ task is to insert adapters so that the bit can be added to the handle.

The point of the simulation is that students are “synthesizing” a complete screwdriver. They begin with a “starting material” (the handle). The “compound” that they are trying to synthesize is the complete screwdriver. Students have to add adapters to the handle in order to be able to attach the bit. The addition of each adapter represents a separate chemical reaction in the overall synthesis. The challenge for students is to build the screwdriver in as few steps as possible. The simplest method requires three adapters.




This activity meets the following National Science Education Standards (Grades 5-8) and Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.

National Science Education Standards (Grades 5-8)

Science As Inquiry

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

Physical Science

  • Properties and changes in properties of matter
  • Chemical Reactions

Science and Technology

  • Abilities of technological design
  • Understandings about science and technology

History and Nature of Science

  • Historical perspectives
  • Science as a human endeavor

Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

  • None.

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