The Life and Times of Percy Julian

For Teachers

Activity 5A (Reading)
Synthetic vs. Natural: What’s the Difference?

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Lesson Overview This reading is a deconstruction of common notions of “natural” and “synthetic” substances.
Learning Objectives Through this reading, students will learn that a substance’s properties arise from its molecular structure, not from how it’s made (i.e., synthesized by people or found in nature). There is no fundamental difference between natural and synthetic materials, all being made from the same atoms joined by the same kind of chemical bonds.
Materials Required No special materials are required.
Lesson Concepts

Students will become familiar with some basic terms used in the world of chemistry:

  • atoms
  • compounds
  • elements
  • molecular structure
  • molecules
  • synthesis
Skills Required No special skills are required.
Time Required Time should be provided for students to read the essay in class, followed by a brief discussion of the main points in the article and an evaluation of the students’ understanding of the important vocabulary words listed above in “Lesson Concepts.” This will probably occupy one class period of 45 minutes.
Student Ability Level and Grouping This lesson is suitable for students of all levels.
Notes This reading is meant to dovetail with the reading “What Is Organic Chemistry?”
Assessment The teacher’s oral evaluation of students after they have finished the reading would be sufficient. This includes students listing substances from their daily lives that they would classify either as natural or synthetic (particularly useful if having students look at the contents of various food packages). Or the teacher might do the same exercise in advance, checking the definitions of various substances found in food packages such as lecithin, food coloring, salt, minerals, “sugar” (sugar cane, fructose, corn syrup), saturated fats, cholesterol, unsaturated fats, monosodium glutamate, various vitamins, and so forth.
Standards

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)

Unifying Concepts and Processes

  • Evidence, models, and explanations

Physical Science

  • Properties and changes of properties in matter

Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

  • None.

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