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Napoleon's Buttons Writing Assignment (8 Favorites)

ACTIVITY in Molecular Formula, History, Functional Groups. Last updated June 5, 2017.


In this activity, students read Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s book Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History. They discuss the book in class and complete a written assignment based on the chemistry and history highlighted in the book.

Grade Level

High school


By the end of this lesson, students should be able to

  • Discuss the authors’ view on the importance of various molecules to history.
  • Understand what skeletal structures of organic molecules represent.
  • Be able to identify various classes of molecules and functional groups.

Chemistry Topics

This lesson supports students’ understanding of

  • Molecular structures
  • Molecular formulas
  • Functional groups
  • Real-world chemistry


Teacher Preparation: Several days/weeks to read the 350-page book, then 1-2 hours to prepare notes for discussion

Lesson: 1.5-2 hours

Teacher Notes

  • I begin the class discussion with the history highlighted in the book: What molecules were important to history? Why? Do you agree with the authors’ point of view? After 30-45 minute of discussing the importance of the molecules, I further explain skeletal structures of organic molecules, what they represent, and why carbon and hydrogen atoms can be omitted. I walk through various groups of molecules (aromatics, conjugated molecules, sugars) and have students practice drawing molecular structures from molecular formulas and vice versa.
  • Students complete the writing assignment in their first week of high school chemistry, so I keep it relatively simple and straight forward. It could be made more difficult for an upper-level chemistry course by requiring students to research more in-depth detail about the chemistry and history of each molecule.
  • This blog contains chapter summaries for Napoleon’s Buttons. It is a good refresher and/or alternative to rereading the book each year.
  • Students continue to practice going from structure to formula by presenting a “Molecule of the Week” each week. Each week, I draw a different molecule and students work to determine its molecular formula. I then share information about the molecule, including its physical properties (highlighting functional groups) and its importance to real life.

For the Student


1. Choose a chapter from Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History by Penny Le Courteur and Jay Burreson and answer the following questions.

a. Draw the structure of the molecule. If more than one molecule is discussed in the chapter, choose one molecule. Write the name of the molecule and its molecular formula under the structure.

b. Describe the significance of the molecule. Include the time period discussed by the authors and how the molecule had an impact on the lives of people of that time. (1-2 paragraphs)

c. Do you agree with the authors’ assessment of the value of the molecule? Why or why not? How might history be different without this molecule? (1-2 paragraphs)

2. Repeat the questions in #1 for a second molecule (must be from a different chapter).

3. Repeat the questions in #1 for a third molecule (must be from a different chapter).

4. Other than the molecules described in Napolean’s Buttons, identify two molecules that you think have had an impact on history or society. For each molecule, draw its structure and include its name and molecular formula. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe each molecule’s significance. Include the references of the sources you used. Do not use Wikipedia.


   Neat/organized (1 point)
   Grammar/proofread (1 point)



   Structures, names, molecular formulas (2 points)
   Significance of molecule 1 (2 points)
   Discussion of agreement for molecule 2 (2 points)
   Significance of molecule 2 (2 points)
   Discussion of agreement for molecule 2 (2 points)
   Significance of molecule 3 (2 points)
   Discussion of agreement for molecule 3 (2 points)
   Significance of molecule 4 (2 points)
   Significance of molecule 5 (2 points)

TOTAL: ____/20
Grading Rubric