The organic chemistry lab is an unnecessary source of anxiety and stress for many second-year chemistry students. Although many may wonder why there is such a strong emphasis on a laboratory component in the first place, it is where we see how to apply what we learn in the lecture. As with any science course, preparation for the laboratory will be what gives students the confidence to succeed and execute their work quickly, effectively and most important, safely.
In my personal experience, I came to chemistry knowing very little about the field hoping to make a career in music, acting or maybe biology. In short, I was very far away from ever finding any happiness in chemistry. As someone that greatly enjoyed working with my hands, I found myself at home in the chemistry lab. Those that excelled in lecture often fumbled due to poor hand skills that resulted in spilled reactions, broken glassware, and sometimes tears. Additionally, those that often seemed to do well in all of their courses would lack the confidence to complete their work at the scheduled time for the lab. This is a trend that seemed to continue from my undergraduate life through to graduate school as I began to lead and supervise students of my own.
Safety and Pro-Tips
This manual is designed to help you work safely and effectively in the lab. Throughout the book, there will be highlighted pieces of information to help (see Figure 2).
Within the lab are collections of many chemicals that are almost all harmful. When manipulated in a safe and controlled manner, there is significantly reduced risk to safety. Though the undergraduate labs often have safe and supervised conditions, safety is your responsibility. Although you can not always control what is happening around you, you can take the necessary steps to protect yourself in the event of an accident at your colleague's workbench.
One of the worst habits I have seen as a student and instructor is the improper use of safety goggles. Many believe that goggles should be worn when they are handling a dangerous chemical or performing a reaction. The truth is that the moment you step foot in a chemistry lab, you should have goggles or safety glasses on. The trouble with taking your goggles off when you are finished your work (perhaps early) is that those around you are still working. You can not control what the people around you are doing or how they are doing it. A small explosion (chemical or broken glassware) can happen in the lab at any time (and sometimes they do). Glassware can drop and shards can fly meters across the lab. If you learn nothing from the organic chemistry lab but one lesson, let it be to respect the lab - keep your goggles until you physically leave the chemistry laboratory.
The second tab you'll come across is the Pro-tip tab.
The Pro-tip tab is as it sounds, are vital tips and tricks that will save you time and headaches in the chemistry lab. Look for these when reviewing the lab the first time and think about them! This is 10 years of lab experience summarized in short, useful messages!
The Lab Notebook
Though this lab techniques book is a digital interactive book, it is no replacement for the use of a bound notebook. Using a notebook sounds simple, but it is rarely done properly. Label everything, record everything. The pages of your notebook should be numbered and there should be a page left blank at the front for a table of contents.
The palest ink is better than the best memory
-Ancient Chinese Proverb
On each page include the page number, date, reaction scheme along with the reagents, conditions and a reagent table. The reagent table should include mass, volume, moles, density, mp/bp, and a safety column for each and every reagent, except perhaps water (every chemist should have this quickly memorized). The physical data for your reagents can be looked up in several places on the internet, usually, the chemical suppliers for chemicals have excellent data including links to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS sheets) and Global Harmonized System of classification of chemicals (GHS). In the notebook, you should record color changes and observations, what happens during heating and cooling.
If you choose to continue in chemistry, the notebook will be one of the most important tools you use. It's a legal document that can be used in court to prove the ownership of a technique or a patent.
 Image courtesy of L. McCann.