One of the chemistry classes I took as an undergrad continues to assist me in my synthetic endeavors mid-career.  The class was organic qual.  It was designed to take the student through the determination of an unknown organic compound , or mixture, with the aid of qualitative tests and derivitization to figure out the compound. We did small visual tests to guage acidity, basicity, water solubility, etc. We did sodium fusions to look for halides, 2,4-DNP hydrazones for carbonyls, picrates of amines, and flame tests to make a guess at saturation. We were given just so many grams of unknown and we had to perform several tests to support a claim of identity. It was an excellent experience because an organic prof taught the actual lab section.  We had access to the lab during the week to work on the unknowns. 

We used derivitization to determine some of the more difficult unknowns. CRC Press had a book of physical properties of a large range of known compounds that were derivatized, so you’d compare mp’s, color, bp, solubility, etc., to make a case for identity.

I would be interested to hear if this is still in the curriculum out there. I fear that it has passed along into history in the face of the hyphenated cryptozoology of todays analytical instruments.  That’s a pity.  Organic qual gave me the chance to handle chemicals, perform reactions, deal with ambiguity,  and do tests that might be hard to work into the rest of the curriculum.   Part of being a good organic chemist is racking up lots of time in the lab doing stuff, polishing up the physical intuition and mechanical skills.

I am embarrassed to admit that at one time I embraced the idea that the organic microlab experience was good pedagogy.  I now see it as more of a phenomenon meant to stretch department budgets. The idea of giving students barely enough reagents to make 100 mg of something is pretty dubious.  If the student goofs and spills something or makes a mismeasure, they might end up with 25 mg of product. The isolation of this amount of mass is problematic for fresh learners.  I miss the days when the organic lab kit had 25, 50, 100, and 250 mL flasks in it (19/22 ST joints, of course). 

The argument goes something like this: Our conversion to microlab equipment is justified because of the cost saving gained by going to a lower scale. We buy fewer grams of expensive reagents and we lower waste generation for the department. Well, this is a bunch of self-serving crap. I can just see the department chair’s pointed head nodding in agreement as some tenured Poindexter drones on about minimizing the negative impact on the environment.  

For Christ’s sake, we’re talking about chemistry, not church camp.  Minimally, chem majors should not be cheated by limiting them to the microscale experiments.

If you want to save the environment, stop driving your SUV down to 7-11 to get cigarettes.  Or, don’t bring home so much cheap plastic crap from Big Box Mart.

Colleges should be giving their chemistry majors more synthesis experience, not less.  In industry it can be a real problem finding fresh BS/BA graduates that have lab experience beyond sophomore organic lab.  Schools that promote lab-based synthesis research for undergrads (as opposed to computation) are doing their students a bigger favor than they may realize.