Fireworks in the Classroom

Developed in China and brought back to Italy by Marco Polo, fireworks are a sign of celebration all over the world.

There is limited agreement about the origins of fireworks. Gunpowder, it is generally agreed, was discovered in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1280 AD) and was used as a medicine for centuries alongside its use in weapons. Firecrackers, though, are said to predate gunpowder.

Pao chuk, or bursting bamboo, is the Chinese name for pieces of green bamboo set on fire. Bamboo grows so fast that it contains air pockets as well as pockets of sap that explode with an impressively loud noise. Some 2000 years ago, people in China began to use bamboo firecrackers on special occasions. Once they discovered the superior noisemaking properties of gunpowder, it was a logical step to add this new technology to their firecrackers. The Chinese had also invented paper, so it wasn’t long before fairly modern fireworks emerged.

Marco Polo brought fireworks back to Italy with him from his expedition to China in 1292, beginning a long association between Italy and fireworks. Italian and other European pyrotechnicians developed new kinds of fireworks displays and new technologies for creating them during the Renaissance. Fireworks grew in popularity and came to the United States in time for the first Fourth of July celebration in 1777.

Art

  • Color a sheet of paper thickly with many different colors of crayon. Cover the paper completely. Then color over all these colors with a thick layer of black crayon. Now, take a fairly sharp object like a wooden skewer or knitting needle and scrape the black crayon off in the shape of fireworks. You have a sgraffito fireworks picture! In a hurry? You can buy sgraffito paper.
  • The Kennedy Center’s The Art of the Explosion is a treasure trove of information about fireworks: history, art, and science are included in the resource, which has over an hour of multimedia following the conception, installation, and performance of a major fireworks event. There’s also an interactive fireworks design game.

Other fireworks games online:

  • An advanced fireworks simulation (Requires Flash.)
  • A simple but noisy virtual fireworks show
  • A fancy game allows you to control a number of variables. We like this for practicing hypothesis formation and testing, but there is a randomization button if you just want to play. (Requires Flash.)

Math

  • Fireworks are all about math, as the Kennedy Center site mentioned above makes clear. Get down to cases at Skylighter. If nothing else, it lets you answer the question, “When will we ever use this?” when you’re teaching percentages.
  • Check out the geometry of fireworks and the relationship of size and velocity at The Physics of Fireworks.
  • Research the history of fireworks (I’ve given you a quick outline above) and add the important dates to your classroom timeline. Amazing, isn’t it?

Science

  • Nova has a great science of fireworks site.
  • Steve Spangler goes into detail about the colors.
  • A video from the American Chemical Society.
  • If you’re brave, or have a spare microwave, you can do a cool fireworks experience with a potato chip package. The Naked Scientists tell you how.
  • Wired Science tells you how to make a simple firecracker with relatively safe chemicals.
  • Caveman Chemistry explains exactly how to make gunpowder, with some notes on the importance of balancing equations. We’re not suggesting that you do this with your class, mind you, but it could be a nice thought experiment.
  • Safer and simpler is “Liquid Fireworks,” which doesn’t teach you much about the science of fireworks, but it does have a science lesson and it doesn’t involve explosions.

Technology

  • Gunpowder was initially intended as a medicine, but after a few years it was used for weapons. There are many other cases of technology being used in ways the inventors didn’t foresee. Have students research this phenomenon and choose an example to study and report on.
  • Modern fireworks displays are controlled by computers. The whole show is programmed into a computer script, and the pyrotechnician pushes the space bar to make it go. A computer script is a series of commands that tell a computer to do something. While you could tell it each step over and over every time you want it to do something, it’s better to write a script that tells the machine to do what you want when you want it — automatically. Check out the Scripting Center for a chance to write and execute a one-line script, even if you don’t know much about computers. We think your students will think it’s cool. Once you’ve tried it, discuss how a script would work for fireworks — and consider what other kinds of home and classroom jobs could be scripted.
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