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Landmark Lesson Plan: Steroid Medicines - A Profile of Chemical Innovation

Grades: 9-12
Subject areas: Organic Chemistry, Green Chemistry, Pharmaceuticals and History
Principal author: Erica K. Jacobsen

The following inquiry-based student activities are designed for use in high school lesson planning. The activities, videos and article will help students understand the timeline and innovations involved in developing steroid medicines — including cortisone — and in devising a practical, affordable way to make them.

The content is designed as a ready-to-go lesson, easily implemented by a teacher or substitute to supplement a unit of study. In organic chemistry, the activities relate to steroid structures. In green chemistry, the activities connect several principles of sustainability to past steroid research. In pharmaceuticals, the activities relate to the medical use of steroids. In history, the activities highlight the multi-decade path of steroid research.

Download the complete lesson plan (PDF).

Resources include:

  • Teacher’s guide: Includes the handout, student activities and answer guide
  • Handout: “Steroid Medicines: A Profile of Chemical Innovation”
  • Student activities: Include the activities described below.

Student activities:

While these activities are thematically linked, each is designed to stand alone as an accompaniment for the handout. Teachers may choose activities based on curricular needs and time considerations.

  • History Exercise: Using the handout, students place major events from the research and development of steroid medicines from the 1920s to the 1990s. They consider why there was a race among companies to manufacture cortisone and also how The Upjohn Company built its research teams and its facilities to encourage progress. (15-20 min.)
  • Steroid Structures: Students recognize that steroids have the same basic "skeleton" and consider why they can have dramatically different properties and effects. They also practice using bond line notation, or skeletal structures, with these compounds. (15–20 min.)
  • Steroids and Green Chemistry: Students compare the paths used to produce cortisone and to upcycle the waste material from this process into hydrocortisone. They then discuss how three principles of green chemistry can relate to past steroid research. (20–25 min.)
  • Use of Steroid Medicines: Students look for changes to the structure of a hydrocortisone molecule and discuss why even a single change could be beneficial for use in medicine. They also imagine a world without steroids and describe the possible effect on the world. (5–10 min.)

Woman standing in front of lab glassware
An Upjohn chemist screens microorganisms for bioconversion of steroid intermediates in the early 1950s.
Upjohn, courtesy of

PDF of Landmark brochure about steroid medicines and Upjohn
Cover from "Steroid Medicines and Upjohn: A Profile of Chemical Innovation" booklet, produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2019.