Today’s “Failures” = Tomorrow’s Successes

Textbook reactions do not always give textbook results. Since we received several new chromatography and spectroscopy instruments as part of our move-in package to our new building we have been doing a more thorough analysis of student products made in organic chemistry labs. In addition to doing the traditional melting point, TLC, IR, UV-vis, and refractive index to identify and characterize students’ products we have also been doing GC-FID, HPLC, and even NMR analysis. The results have been surprising in many cases. Student products from a simple reaction can be a mixture of several unanticipated compounds accompanying the target substance. In a couple of cases, we discovered that students had done a careful isolation and analysis of their starting material! Student products not only diverge from the textbook results they also vary with each other. Students in the same lab, working with the same chemicals, and using the same procedure can come up with dramatically different results. A scientific approach informs us that it is not really a matter of “the experiment didn’t work,” but rather an opportunity to explore how and why unanticipated results were obtained. After all William Perkin made one of the most momentous discoveries in chemistry by examining the chemical composition of the sludge left in his flask after a failed synthesis of quinine.


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