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Pyrotechnics for Pyromaniacs
by Victoria L. Reid
Boise State University

Time Allotment: Two 45-minute class periods.
Subject Matter: Chemistry

Every year during the Fourth of July celebration, Americans see and enjoy fireworks. Most people don't know what causes the colors of the fireworks, how the firework is made into the dazzling shapes, or even how the firework display is shot into the air. All of these are a product of chemistry.

Today's students don't understand why they need to study chemistry. This lesson-plan is geared towards giving them a fun way of looking at chemistry and providing a reason for them to know and understand chemistry. They have all experienced the Fourth of July celebration. Through this lesson, the students will learn how chemistry is associated with the annual celebration of America's independence. They will learn what gunpowder is made of, the anatomy of a firework, how noise is made in fireworks and the safety issues involved in pyrotechnics.

This lesson can be used in several areas of the chemistry year. It can be used as a precursor to get students interested in chemistry, when the students learn exothermic and endothermic reactions, or when they are learning about atoms and molecules.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Identify the metals associated with certain colors given off by fireworks;
  • Define the compounds contained in gun powder;
  • Describe how a firework is shot into the air;
  • Use a diagram to create a firework and list the components of the firework.

From the Idaho State Board of Education Achievement Standards, available online at

  • 648 Standard 02b:
    The student will understand concepts and processes of evidence, models and explanation. Use models to explain how things work.
  • 650 Standard 03a, b, and c:
    The student will understand chemical reactions. Know that chemical reactions may release or consume energy. Know that chemical reactions can occur in time periods that vary from very fast to very slow and that catalysts can affect the rate of a chemical reaction. Identify chemical reactions that are occurring all around us.

Media Components:
"Fireworks" (Nova) Videocassette Dist. By WGBH Boston Video and PBS Home Video, 2002

Web Sites:

  • Nova Online "Fireworks"
    This web site is an extension of the movie by NOVA. It defines and demonstrates fireworks. It provides an interactive component to making fireworks and demonstrates catalytic reactions.
  • Nova Online "Kaboom!"
    This web site is the extension to the movie by NOVA, "Kaboom!" In this lesson the students will be using the link to the periodic chart that gives the elements that are associated with fireworks.

Pencil and paper; Design Your Own Firework Sheet;;Online Guide to the Innards of Fireworks Sheet; Television; VCR; Computers with Internet access

Prep For Teachers
Prior to teaching this lesson, make sure you have watched the video and noted the stop and start spots for an easier transition. Bookmark the web sites and look at all the applicable links of the sites for faster loading times. Load the QuickTime video player on each computer for the demonstrations provided by the web sites. Make sure you have enough copies of the handouts for all the students in your class.

Introductory Activities
Distribute the "Design your own Firework" sheet to the students. Discuss the Fourth of July with the students and direct their questions to figure out how much they really know about how and what fireworks are made of. Tell them that this sheet is for them to create a design with color of a firework that they would like. Tell them to be creative and that they can use crayons, markers, color pencils, or even a computer program. They need to have different colors in the design. Tell them that artistic value is not important. It is the next step that you will be concerned about.

After they design their own firework display, tell them that they will be making a legend of the metals involved in the chemicals in their firework. They will be getting the information for this task from the video and the online interactive sites. Tell the students that they will be learning about the chemicals that make up fireworks and how fireworks are shot in the air.

Learning Activities
Inform your students that they are going to watch a video segment on fireworks. They will need to know that this video is mostly about the history of fireworks. Explain that you will be stopping the video at certain points to discuss important information during the film and that they need to take notes on what is discussed.

Insert the tape NOVA "Fireworks" into the VCR. START the tape at the beginning. FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION:   Ask your students to note the three components of gunpowder, how fountains are created and what are used to make "stars" . PAUSE the tape when you see the last of the fireworks and right before you see people and boats. You will hear the phrase "Roman candles and fountains come from tubes." Discuss with your students how gunpowder was created and its components.

RESUME PLAYING. FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Ask your students to identify what can happen to fireworks with different weather conditions and the dangers that are involved. PAUSE the tape at the point where you hear "Anything can happen" and see the water and a flag on a pole.

Discuss with your students why these weather conditions would be considered "bad" for a display.

FASTFORWARD and RESUME PLAYING at the point where you hear "Italians developed prototypes of almost all basic fireworks" and you see the monk walking towards the camera and a fountain firework going off. FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Tell your students that color is an important part of fireworks. Tell them to pay particular attention to how color is created in fireworks and what causes the different colors. PAUSE the film when you hear "reflect all color in the visible spectrum and appear bright white" and you see the color spectrum with white flames above it.

Discuss with your students how colors are developed from various metal salts. Discuss the different colors that are produced from the examples the film provided. You might want to look up some other salts and the colors they give off and point these out. For example NaCl gives off a bright orange color. Also point out to your students the change from Potassium Nitrate to Potassium Chlorate. Discuss why this is an important change.

FASTFORWARD and RESUME PLAYING when you see tubes and a van leaving a warehouse and you hear "Zambelli renown for their extremely complicated multibreak shells." FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Ask your students to identify how the different sounds are made and why sound is an important part of a fireworks display. PAUSE the tape before you see the war scenes and you hear "You get the bang."

Sound is a big factor in watching the public demonstrations of fireworks. This section of the film describes how the "bang" is produced and the anatomy of a basic firework. Guide your students to imagine what more chambers would do for a firework. Explain to them that they will get to see the whole anatomy of a firework when they do the online portion of this lesson.

FASTFORWARD and RESUME PLAYING when you see the blind woman looking up and right before the noise description. You will hear the woman say, "description has certainly enhanced my image." FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Ask your students to note how the three different sounds are created. PAUSE the film at the building and Mr. Zambelli and when you hear the narrator say, "back at the Zambelli plant a bang is the worst nightmare." Have your students describe how sound affects them during a fireworks display. Does it affect them emotionally? Is that important?

RESUME PLAYING. FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Have your students identify the different dangers involved in pyrotechnics. PAUSE the film when you see the river and hear "Pyrotechnics have their favorite spots." There are many dangers involved in using and watching firework displays. Discuss with your students some of these dangers and how the pyrotechnics have overcome those dangers.

RESUME PLAYING. FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Have your students think about how technology has really advanced the fireworks displays. PAUSE when you hear "maximizing the computer technology to really create" and you see the man at the laptop. This is before the dancer. Discuss how technology is important to the artistic value of a fireworks display. Ask your students if they have ever seen a fireworks display that was synchronized with music.

FASTFORWARD and RESUME PLAYING when the barge in the water is shown and you hear "Back in Boston." FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION: Ask your students if the government would be a good entity to be involved in a fireworks display and if so, what would be the capacity to their involvement. PAUSE at "Pyrotechnics is show business." There are more safety issues. Ask your students if the UCC is an appropriate group to have. Ask them if they think there are other uses to this kind of center. RESUME PLAYING. STOP the film when you see the two gentlemen performing a "high-five". Ask your students to consider if the firework they designed is realistic now that they know more about the makings of fireworks. Make sure they know that no matter what theirs looks like; the legend is what they will be graded on.

Ask your students to log onto NOVA "Fireworks" web site at Explain that this web site provides a companion to the movie. Provide your students the "Online Guide to the Innards of Fireworks" sheet. Explain to your students that when they get to the periodic table of elements they must log onto the NOVA "Kaboom!" website at Have them complete the worksheet and check for comprehension.

Culminating Activity/Assessment:
At this point in the lesson your students will be completing the legend for their colorful firework design. Let students discuss how they might make the shell for their design with you or their peers. As an assessment, have the legends, designs, and the "Innards" worksheet turned in. Again, make sure that you are grading only on the legend. It is the colors and the chemicals involved in the creation of the colors that are important. You are looking for comprehension of how different elements can cause different outcomes.


Write a diary entry about an experience that they experienced on a Fourth of July Celebration. Where fireworks a major part of this experience? Would the experience been as memorable if you hadn't had fireworks?

Learn about the origins of the fireworks display in the American Independence Day celebration. Why do we use fireworks to celebrate this holiday? What is the significance of fireworks during this celebration?

Use supervised experiments with different launch angles using the NERF Rockets. How do you get the highest lift? Does weight make a difference in the height of the firework? How do you get the different shapes in the display? Does physical dimensions matter in how the firework would fly through the air?

Community Connections:
Call your local city hall and find out who is in charge of the fireworks display for your towns Fourth of July celebration. Get in touch with the director of this display and have them show some of the different types of firework shells that they use.

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