What is the best thing about high school chemistry lessons? Memorizing all the nomenclature related to organic chemistry and functional groups? Definitely no. The most amazing part of the syllabus is, for sure, the creative practicals!
Chemistry lab work at the University of Helsinki. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro.
Although organic chemistry can sometimes get really confusing and difficult, the labs related to it are incredibly fun! By now, it is the only practical we were allowed to design ourselves, so I grabbed my favorite and most flavorful subject in the field, esters!
For the design, I spent dozens of hours to make up the perfect plan, though I probably used more time in that than in any other chemistry homework. Finally, I ended up with my amyl acetate. It is also called banana oil and is made up of pentanol and ethanoic acid with a little help from my catalyst, the sulfuric acid.
If the planning part was already so exciting, you cannot believe how animated I was during the lesson itself. All the cooling- and titration-systems were definitely not handy, as the school equipment are understandably not the best there are.
First, I burnt my hand on the heater, and then I messed up with the boiling stones, let water run out of the cooling tubes onto the floor, and of course kept on bothering the teacher, since I was not sure of the next step.
Nevertheless, after all the splashy action I did end up with some banana ester! The hard work is not all wasted at least.
All the delight was then packed in this small flask and I took a little sample as a souvenir. As foolish as I was, putting the souvenir in my locker was not the best choice. The acid melted through the plastic in a few hours and got rigidly stuck to the metal base of my locker. What’s my solution? Get a knife from the cafeteria and start scribbling the plastic-acid formation from the floor and hope that no teacher will catch me at the moment.
Why this happened? Blame me and the distillation, which did not work out. The boiling temperature was way too hot and the ester started to breakdown to its acid and alcohol form.
However, we got it all fixed up last week during our visit to one of the chemistry labs in the University of Helsinki. They had very nice machines that allowed me to work at low pressure, which consequently lowered the boiling point and now I have four grams of pure amyl acetate in a GLASS container. (Just like the old saying, we do learn from our mistakes.)
Their heaters were also very user-friendly and honestly it would be hard to get any fingers burnt! I was very inspired by the nice equipment and the working environment in the university, and I think it would be great if the high schools in the Helsinki area could cooperate with the local universities such as Aalto and University of Helsinki in the compulsory laboratory works.
This would decrease the government’s budget so that high schools would not need to have any science labs and all the lab work could be concentrated into a week-long visit to a university. The students would also get a thorough view on how the things work in university level and help them decide whether it is the environment they want to study in.
I do hope that the collaboration between universities and high schools will increase in the next few years!