Molecule Monday

Molecule Monday next to a cup of coffee on teal background

In August 2016, I attended the New England Association of Chemistry Teacher’s summer conference in North Adams, MA at the Massachusetts College for Liberal Arts (MCLA). As with many conferences for chemistry teachers, there were a mix of lectures about recent research in chemistry, lab experiences to bring to the classroom, and pedagogy from other chemistry teachers. I left the conference feeling energized, but a bit overwhelmed. How could I best incorporate any of the ideas I learned into the classroom?

One of the talks was by Dr. Robert Harris, a chemistry professor at MCLA titled “The Best Biomolecule of the Week” where Dr. Harris spoke of how he engaged his sometimes reluctant organic chemistry students. That idea stuck with me as something I could do in my classroom and engage my students with chemistry. I teach at an agricultural high school where my students spend half their day in the four core academic courses, and then spend the rest of the day in their vocational classes including grooming dogs, climbing trees, designing flower arrangements, and riding horses. My students apply and choose to come to my school as a vocational major, but are often less excited about their academic courses. I thought if I could bring in a molecule related to the different vocationals, they would see this course connected to their chosen fields and as a result see chemistry as something in their daily lives. I wanted Molecule Monday to be a time set aside for class discussion, not necessarily something they would be tested on.

Shortly after I left the conference, I began planning how to incorporate this idea into my weekly routine. I decided I would set aside Sunday evenings to consider the class material and calendar to choose the appropriate molecule for the week.

For the first Monday of the school year, I chose caffeine. I began class with the skeletal structure of this organic molecule (see figure 1). I asked my students to make observations.

Figure 1: Skeletal structure for caffeine

  • What did the structure look like to them?  

  • What elements did they see?

  • Was the structure large or small? Why?

  • Did they think the structure was complicated or simple? Why did they think so?

The next slide had properties of the compound where I introduced the students to what a chemical formula means. For example, I displayed caffeine’s formula, C8H10N4O2, and read it aloud. Then I translated the formula and explained this meant eight carbons, ten hydrogens, four nitrogens, and two oxygens. I returned to the image often and pointed out the individual elements and showed them each corner represented a carbon connected to a number of hydrogens. Then, I displayed the IUPAC name and returned to the image to show them how the IUPAC name relates to the structure.

From here, we looked at physical and chemical properties of the molecule. This can take on different meanings depending on where we are in the curriculum. The density of a molecule is important after the first unit, while molar mass becomes important later on in the year.

Afterwards, we move on to information about how and where we have seen the compounds being used, all before identifying the actual compound. We briefly discuss the history of the molecule, its uses, and dangers. Students enjoy guessing the identity of the molecule until the last slide where I showed them images of examples of where the molecule is used. In the case of caffeine, I used an image of coffee.

The weeks when we have not met on a Monday or an alternative time for a Molecule Monday, the students have been disappointed and looked forward to the next Monday. I recently asked my students why they look forward to Molecule Monday.

  • They love seeing the random facts about everyday fun things.

  • They enjoy hearing about molecules that you wouldn’t ordinarily hear about in class.

  • It is fun to try and figure out what molecule it is.

  • It is cool to see how it’s all put together.

  • It is interesting to break down common items into their molecules.

With such precious little class time, why have I devoted 10-15 minutes almost every Monday to this? We all look for ways to engage with our students and help them make the content relevant. This is just one approach. In the future, I hope to have my students create their own Molecule Monday and find ways to make the content meaningful to them.

Curious about Molecule Monday or want to add your own? You can find some of my Monday Molecules presentations below.

Preview Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.