IUPAC Nomenclature should be taught to Elementary School Kids.

This is my new favorite teacher explaining the word “pentane”.

Why do we teach the boring, difficult parts of chemistry first? How about instead starting by teaching students to understand and those impressive chemical names and diagrams seen in organic chemistry. In other words, teach it like an English class and maybe an art/doodling class rolled into one, at the beginning.

Students would immediately start seeing themselves as chemistry savvy, and maybe even as future chemists, when they noticed that they alone were able to decode “methane” and know that the “meth” part means “one” (carbon atom), and the maximum possible number (four in this case) of hydrogen atoms, while all the other news watchers just understood that it comes out of both ends of cows.

Chemistry is quite difficult, and organic chemistry is famously difficult, but the nomenclature and diagrams of organic chemistry are astonishingly easy, and just how easy is a well-kept secret. The nonchemist is blinded by science by either of them, but the basics can be mastered by an eight year old. The confidence, and motivation of the students will be greatly increased once they know they can impress the hell out of people with a word or an easy to draw diagram. Imagine methane is mentioned on the news and your eight year old child draws a diagram of it. And then ‘high octane fuel’ is mentioned, and he or she draws a diagram of that.

Imagine an eight year old being able to understand, read, write, and draw the diagram of the molecule of 5-bromo-2,4-dichloro-1,3,8-trimethyl-octane and thousands of other equally complex organic molecules. It sounds preposterous, unless the child is a genius. But in actuality, it’s easy as pie. An eight year old could easily learn to do this in a few hours. An adult could learn it in a few minutes.

Once enthusiastic about (showing off about) chemistry, students can more easily be coaxed into paying attention to the difficult, boring bits, and how the chemical reactions actually work, which is really, really hard — it involves quantum mechanics. And even if this doesn’t work in every case, at least students will come away with what could be called chemical literacy.

One great thing about chemical literacy is that it may well last for life, for the exact same reason that ordinary literacy does. You never forget how to read, because words are everywhere, and likewise you will likely never forget how to decode the suffix “-ane”, because words that end in it are everywhere, and many are are familiar household terms. Methane, ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, heptane, octane, nonane, and decane (to mention just ten of them) are frequently referred to in Wikipedia and newspaper articles, and methane, propane, butane, and octane (as in “high-octane”) are household terms.

A nonobvious reason to master this system is that it is so rational, and ingenious. The more clever solutions to problems you are familiar with, the better. And this is really clever.

What makes these words so easy to learn is that they are generated by simple algorithms. For example in the ten flammable chemicals mentioned just now, the -ane suffix means exactly the same thing, and the prefixes tell you how many carbon atoms are in the molecule.

  1. meth-
  2. eth-
  3. prop-
  4. but-
  5. pent-
  6. hex-
  7. hept-
  8. oct-
  9. non-
  10. dec-

There are other suffixes that mean other simple things. If you know four suffixes and ten prefixes, you can read and write four times ten new words. That’s forty new words. And that’s just the start. Prefixes can be combined in various ways so that within a short time you can read and write thousands of new words. Spelling and pronunciation is easy too, because every word follows the same rules.

Quite a few students, including artsy students, are proud of knowing a lot of words, or of their ability to read all sorts of texts, and understand all sorts of speech. By introducing chemical notation as a way to build up one’s vocabulary incredibly quickly, and explicitly keeping score of how many new words have been mastered, maybe English students could be motivated to learn to some chemistry, and to never forget it. It’s the psychology of those huge scores in video games (and pinball games before that).

A lot of students like drawing, or doodling. Chemical diagrams are as easy as doodles but as impressive as a good drawing, especially to nonchemists, and have the advantage that you can show off, without seeming to, by using them. You just draw one, and if someone looks over your shoulder, you just modestly say you are doodling, or revising for a chemistry test. But whoever looked over your shoulder will either think you are a fellow chemist, or be utterly blinded by science.

Some of those looking will be parents, and they will no doubt be pleased with the science teacher. Students will almost immediately be able to name and draw large numbers of molecules.

Photo by Terry Vlisidis on Unsplash

Given the diagram of the molecule the student will be able to figure out the name, and vice versa. Thus the student can be tested with flashcards. This also makes possible a sort of “magic trick”. The student claims to have memorized all the names and diagrams of a large number of organic molecules, and to prove it offers to write or draw whatever is on the opposite side of the flashcard.

The stack of flashcards could be huge, numbering in the thousands. The student hasn’t memorized them of course, but rather uses the IUPAC rules to deduce the name from the diagram or vice versa. Kids like tricks so this could work well. The more cards in the shuffled stack and the more types of molecule are included the harder it will be for the audience to notice that there are rules connecting the diagrams to the names and the better the trick will work. Thus the student has an incentive to learn the IUPAC rules for a large variety of types of organic molecule.

Also the more quickly and smoothly the student can perform the writing, speaking, or drawing the more it looks like remembering rather than deduction, so the student has an incentive to get quick at that.

To make it all as impressive as possible, and to make it harder to see that it is deduction, the student might use the bigger, redundant diagrams that include the hydrogen atoms and the wedge and dash bonds.

Here’s an excellent, very watchable video by Professor Dave that introduces the standard (IUPAC) chemical names and diagrams for some of the easier molecules of organic chemistry. You can see how easy it is, even though it is clearly aimed at advanced students of chemistry, including university students. Even a complete beginner can master all of it.

I think science teachers and/or parents should show this video to beginner students of chemistry, including elementary school students, and answer their questions, and teach them to read and talk and draw like a chemist, and blind everyone with science.

Besides chemistry and therefore general science, organic molecules and their names and diagrams are relevant to biology, so a biology teacher might want to teach this. Or if a student is passionate about biology, a parent or private tutor might teach this to him or her.

I’d go further and say that this video (and some of the others by Professor Dave that follow on from it) would not be out of place in an English class. Most of the words in the English dictionary are names of chemicals — there are I believe about 800,000 such words in the dictionary, while ordinary words amount only to 200,000 in number. Being able to understand what is meant by “propane” or “octane”, or at least what the difference is between them is (the former has five carbon atoms, the latter has eight), is surely part of being an educated speaker of English.

Prepare for a lot of fun and the greatest demystification of science ever (remember you can adjust the playback speed in YouTube by going into the settings menu that pops up when you click the cog icon):

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Matthew Christopher Bartsh

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My favorite activity is learning new things.

Nerd For Tech

NFT is an Educational Media House. Our mission is to bring the invaluable knowledge and experiences of experts from all over the world to the novice. To know more about us, visit https://www.nerdfortech.org/.