As an undergraduate-level Organic Chemistry teacher, you can use this set of computer-based tools to help you teach infrared (IR) spectroscopy and the use of IR spectra to detect functional groups in organic molecules. 

The lesson plan will help students differentiate between IR active molecules and IR inactive molecules. It focuses on the behavior of molecules of gases such as CO2 and water vapor when they interact with IR radiation and helps in explaining the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere.

Thus, the use of this lesson plan allows you to integrate the teaching of a climate science topic with a core topic in Organic Chemistry.



Use this lesson plan to help your students find answers to:

  1. What happens when a molecule absorbs IR light?
  2. What information do the diagnostic and fingerprint regions of the IR spectrum of a compound convey?
  3. What are the vibrational modes of carbon dioxide molecules?
  4. Discuss why carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and water vapor are greenhouse gases while oxygen (O2) and nitrogen (N2) are not.

This is a Teacher-submitted Lesson Plan.

Contributed by Dr. Sharda Pasricha, Associate Professor,  Sri Venkateswara College (University of Delhi), India.

Want to know more about how to contribute? Contact us.

About Lesson Plan

Grade Level Undergraduate
Discipline Chemistry
Topic(s) in Discipline
  • Infrared (IR) Spectroscopy, Molecular Vibration
  • Vibrational Modes, IR Active Molecule
  • IR Absorption and Greenhouse Gases
  • Greenhouse Effect
  • Diagnostic and Fingerprint Regions of Infrared (IR) Spectra
Climate Topic
  • Climate and the Atmosphere
  • The Greenhouse Effect
Location Global
Language(s) English
Access Online
Time Required
45 – 60 min


A set of micro-lectures (videos) (~20 min)
Micro-lecture and reading (~25 min)

Here is a step-by-step guide to using this lesson plan in the classroom/laboratory. We have suggested these steps as a possible plan of action. You may customize the lesson plan according to your preferences and requirements.


Step 1:  Introduce the topic through a series of micro-lectures (videos)

Introduce the topic of spectroscopy and explain how different types of spectroscopy are used to elucidate the structures of molecules of organic compounds. Use a series of micro-lectures developed by the Royal Society of Chemistry to -

  • - introduce IR spectroscopy,
  • - explain the application of IR spectroscopy in organic chemistry to detect functional groups in molecules, and
  • - describe the vibrational modes of these molecules on absorption of IR light.
    1. Use the micro-lecture “Infrared spectroscopy (IR)” available at to explain what happens when a molecule is exposed to IR radiation. Explain that a molecule absorbs IR energy when the frequency of stretching or bending of the molecular bonds corresponds to that of the incident IR light. Use this video to explain the basic working of an IR spectrometer that is used to obtain the IR spectra for known/unknown molecules. Further, with the help of the video, briefly explain how the functional groups present in a molecule can be deduced by examining its IR spectrum.
    2. Next, play the micro-lecture “Chemistry Vignettes: IR Spectroscopy” available at Discuss how the pattern of the IR radiation absorption spectrum can be used to determine the functional groups present in the molecule. Emphasize that every peak in the IR spectrum is characterized by its frequency, intensity, and shape of the band, and that these factors depend on the type of functional group present in the molecule. Further, use the video to describe the fingerprint region of the IR spectrum; this region can be used to identify an unknown organic molecule.
    3. Play the video micro-lecture “Chemistry Vignettes: Vibrational Modes” available at to describe the vibrational modes of polyatomic molecules. Explain that only some vibrational modes (those that lead to a fluctuating dipole) result in absorption of IR light energy. Introduce the terms “IR active molecules” and “IR inactive molecules” by using the CO2 molecule as an example and describe its different modes of vibration.

Step 2:  Explore the topic further with a micro-lecture and associated reading

  1. Use a micro-lecture and associated reading from Prof. David Archer, the University of Chicago, to discuss the effects of IR absorption on gas molecules; further, explain vibrational modes and why certain atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor, and methane (CH4) act as greenhouse gases.
  2. Play the video micro-lecture “Greenhouse Gases” to describe the various modes of vibration in polyatomic gas molecules. Use the video to discuss the development of a charge imbalance (electrical dipole) in molecules due to the asymmetrical stretching or bending modes of vibration. Explain that this results in the absorption of heat energy from incident IR radiation in gas molecules such as carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor, and methane (CH4); therefore, these gases trap the heat energy in the atmosphere and act as greenhouse gases.
  3. Use the associated Reading from Prof. David Archer’s book “Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast”, available at (pg. 29-32), for a detailed description of how chemical bonds respond to incident IR light. Explain that due to electrical dipole moments developed during molecular vibrations, some bonds absorb IR energy of specific frequencies. Use this reading to explain the various vibrational modes in polyatomic gas molecules such as water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2).
  4. Reiterate that the absorption of incident IR radiation by these gas molecules in certain vibrational modes makes them greenhouse gases.