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The Electric Chemistry Building, Phase III: Organic Chemistry.

The Electric Chemistry Building, Phase III: Organic Chemistry, Snowbird Software, 71A Leland St., Hamilton, Ont. L8S 3Al; 416521-9667, inorganic chemistry $149.50; physical chemistry $299.50; organic chemistry $299.50. This software package is designed for use at the high-school and college levels to allow students to perform labless experimental procedures. It uses an innovative idea in which a whole chemistry building is simulated. There are nine rooms: the vestibule; the three laboratories, organic, inorganic, and physical, together with their associated storerooms; the library; and the problem room. In Phase III: Organic Chemistry, though, the vestibule (entrance), organic lab, organic storeroom, library, and problem room are the only functional rooms

After collecting the appropriate equipment and reagents from the storeroom, a number of different chemical reactions can be simulated. These include distillation, hydrogenation, elemental analysis, depression of freezing point, elevation of boiling point, and enthalpy of combustion. The programs are very versatile. For example, one can attempt to synthesize an ester from one's choice of alcohol and carboxylic acid. The program points out any missing item of apparatus (such as thermometer) and then commences the distillation. As each fraction distills, the product can be removed and saved. The simulations are very realistic. For example, an injudicious selection of reagents and quantities in an ester synthesis results in the major product being an alkene rather than an ester.

The library contains'books'on each functional group and on each reagent (even such uncommon ones as the Hoffman/Cope reagent). Each book (or more correctly, flat-file database) contains an introduction, general reactions, and example reactions. The book called Namer can be used for the drawing of molecular structures. These structures can be named and exhibited in a three-dimensional form. The line structure can be rotated about each Cartesian axis or exhibited as an approximate space-filling model.

Among the classroom applications suggested are: tests for unsaturated hydrocarbons, preparation and study of acetylene, isomers, preparation of esters, oxidation and reduction reactions, halogenation, enthalpy of combustion, and the distillation of 'petroleum'. The teacher's disk allows reagents to be added or removed from the storeroom and it enables the teacher to set up problems in the problem room.

According to the accompanying print material, the purpose of the exercises is 'safe training for the real thing, not the elimination of the real thing'. However, the authors undercut their case by later suggesting that "the money saved on chemicals and broken glassware for just one experiment will usually cover the cost of the program". It is also noted that "Students experience many more experiments in a short time". This last statement is definitely misleading as it is trying to blur the distinction between doing an experiment and simulating an experiment. The accompanying literature also expresses the hope that the program will "put some of the excitement of chemistry back into chemistry courses". However, the excitement of chemistry comes from performing live lab work, such as making crystals or synthesizing compounds, not from sitting in front of a video screen. The program has the potential for use and misuse. In the latter category, in spite of the aim to supplement not to replace real experimentation, school officials might well see these simulations as a wonderful way of saving the cost of the hands-on laboratory work. Nevertheless, with clearly defined aims, this particular program can enable students to explore the complexities of organic chemistry. Experimental organic chemistry is a particularly difficult challenge at the high school level with the hazards of reagents, the cost of conventional equipment, and the dangers of many traditional experimental procedures. As a result, most organic chemistry is taught through rote learning. Using this program, students can explore the reactions of organic compounds in a more interesting way than simply reading from a textbook.

To accomplish these goals, the well written Teacher's Guide needs a change of emphasis. Too many of the suggested 'experiments' are simply following recipes. The interesting part comes with the enrichment materials at the end. With the heavy teaching loads at the high-school level, teachers need greater detail on these. As an example, a selection of unknowns' could be available in the Problem Room for students to identify by means of reactions, elemental analysis, and a molar mass measurement. It is this type of exercise where the Electric Chemistry Building could perform a really useful role.

The program is designed for running on an IBM PC or compatible with a colour graphics card (CGA or better). As the CGA standard has been chosen as the base resolution, the widest number of machines can run the program, though this results in very "chunky' graphics. Of slight annoyance, chemical formulas in the library are shown with the numbers 'in line' rather than subscripted. Apart from being inaccurate, this makes the formulas harder to read. Most exercises seem to be set up correctly, though in the bomb calorimeter, the bomb can only be fired while the oxygen gas supply is open - a rather dangerous procedure. A considerable effort has been made

to ensure that the program can be run with little need to refer to the manual. Help is available at any juncture by use of the Fl function key. In fact, the only task to master is to remember where each room is located relative to its neighbours. For example, a visit to the library from the organic laboratory entails trekking through the physical lab and either the physical or inorganic storeroom (not a route found in many academic buildings).

The authors are to be complimented on the quantity and quality of work put into this laboratory simulation. As a replacement for written exercises, it can be a valuable resource; as a replacement for experimental work, however, it would be a degradation of the chemistry experience.

The three units of the Electric Chemistry Building (inorganic, physical and organic) are available for a single user and, for a small extra fee, additional copies of the student disks can be purchased. There is also a network or site licence available.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Chemical Institute of Canada
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rayner-Canham, Geoff
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:evaluation
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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