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Smelly Synthesis

Grades: 7-12 Physical Science, 11-12 Chemistry
Author: Emily Wagner
Source: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EEC-1161732. Lab section adapted from Eastern Iowa Community College.


Students will view the nylon rope demonstration to be introduced to polymer synthesis. They will then perform an inquiry investigation of organic synthesis by mixing various carboxylic acids with alcohols to create esters. Depending on the mixture between the acids and alcohols, different smells will be produced. The class will then come together and discuss the purpose of the lab and the results obtained.


What should students know as a result of this lesson?

  • Identify and write the reaction for a synthesis reaction
  • Recognize when an alcohol and carboxylic acid are mixed, an ester (scent) is formed
  • Polyesters are formed from ester linkages
  • Polymers are used in everyday life (clothing, tires, Teflon, Kevlar, etc.)

What should the students be able to do as a result of this lesson?

  • Identify a synthesis reaction
  • Write the organic synthesis reaction between a carboxylic acid and alcohol
  • Construct appropriate data tables for the inquiry lesson.
  • Identify where polymers are used in everyday life.




  • Salicylic (100g/$7.55, 500g/$20.40)
  • Propanoic (500mL/$13.95)
  • Ethanoic (500mL/$16.60)

Alcohol (from Flinn)

  • Methanol (4L/$22.51)
  • butan-1-ol (500mL/$11.25)
  • octan-1-ol (500mL/$28.35)
  • propan-1-ol (500mL/$12.25)
  • Test Tubes
  • Test Tube Rack
  • Electronic Balance

Demonstration Synthesis of Nylon

  • hexamethylendiamine/sodium hydroxide
  • adipoyl chloride/hexane solution
  • These two mixtures are available from Flinn Scientific: $26.80



Before the lesson on the synthesis of esters and application to polymers, students will be given a pretest on their knowledge of polymers and organic synthesis. (Pre Test 1)

Day 1: Questioning for prior knowledge:

  1. What are polymers?
  2. What is a synthesis reaction?
  3. What does the general synthesis mechanism look like?

Show students the nylon rope demonstration to get them engaged in synthesis reactions and polymers.

Assessment: Through discussing the questions with students determine that they have a basic understanding of polymers and general synthesis before beginning the ester lab.


Day 2: Students will conduct the ester inquiry lab with their lab partners. They will be given some guidance with mixing solutions (A-C/carboxylic acid) with (1-4/alcohols) of various combinations. They will then record all of their observations. (Worksheet 1)

Assessment: Check for participation of each lab group. Each member of the group should have a role and be an active participant. Observation tables must be constructed in their lab book.


Day 2: Discussion-As a whole class, each group will share the information/observations they gathered. Then as a class, we will write the mechanism of synthesis.

Assessment: Final Lab Report, Ester Mechanism


Day 2/3: Explanation showing organic synthesis and polyester.

Extension to show the recycled plastic bottles and how they make polyester.

Assessment: Students should be able to apply what they have learned about synthesis to other types of polymers found in everyday life. Student discussion along with an exit slip as an extension.

Day 4: Students will synthesize a linear or cross-linked polyester

Assessment: Lab Report on polyester


Students will need to know general synthesis, lab safety, chemical elements and how to write chemical equations.

Best Teaching Practices

  • 5 E learning cycle
  • Inquiry Activities
  • Conceptual Understanding
  • Problem Solving
  • Real Life Applications

Alignment with Standards

NGSS Standards:

  • HS-PS1-1. Use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outermost energy level of atoms.
  • HS-PS1-2. Construct and revise an explanation for the outcome of a simple chemical reaction based on the outermost electron states of atoms, trends in the periodic table, and knowledge of the patterns of chemical properties.
  • HS-PS1-4. Develop a model to illustrate that the release or absorption of energy from a chemical reaction system depends upon the changes in total bond energy.
  • HS-PS1-5. Apply scientific principles and evidence to provide an explanation about the effects of changing the temperature or concentration of the reacting particles on the rate at which a reaction occurs.

Common Core Standards:

  • RST.11-12.3. Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks; analyze the specific results based on explanations in the text.
  • RST.11-12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • RST.11-12.9. Synthesize information from a range of sources into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
  • WHST.11-12.2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/experiments, or technical processes.

Ohio Standards:

  • Chemistry Course Content: Interactions of Matter, Chemical Reactions, Types of Reactions (Synthesis)
  • Science Inquiry and Application: Design and conduct scientific investigations

Content Knowledge

It is assumed that the average high school or middle school student knows nothing about polymers. Students should already be familiar with the following topics:

  • Elements
  • Bonding
  • Basic chemical reactions
  • Organic chemistry

Students will expand their current knowledge of organic chemistry and be able to write and perform synthesis reactions.


Students will wear gloves and goggles in the lab

Concentrated sulfuric acid will be dealt with in the hood under the teacher’s observation.


Nylon as shown in the demonstration is used in rope, clothing, etc.

Many esters have the characteristic property of a pleasant odor. As such, they are used as artificial flavors and perfumes.

Extension: The end of the lesson is then connected with how polyester fabrics are made from recycled plastics.


Students will be assessed using a formal lab report along with an exit slip.

Other Considerations

Grouping Suggestions: Extension - Lab - Students will be grouped with their lab partners.

Pacing/Suggested Time: This lesson will be a three-day lab. Day 1: Organic Chemistry Notes/Nylon Rope Demonstration; Day 2: Ester Lab Synthesis Inquiry Lab; Day 3: Wrap-Up/Explanation/Extension.

Printable PDF Worksheets

Polymer/Organic Pre Test

Lab Guided Direction - Worksheet 1

Polymer/Organic Post Test