Fireworks capture our attention with their beautiful colors and controlled explosions, both of which link directly to fundamental concepts taught in basic chemistry classes. The media resources featured in this lesson provide a visually rich way to tie together spectral chemistry, combustion, and the nature of fire. Students watch a video segment and read text about the color of fireworks (particularly useful when following a chemistry lab in which powders of elements are placed over a flame to observe their spectral emission). They also watch a video segment and do an interactive activity on the mechanics of a firework, which leads to optional interactive activities for those wanting a slightly more advanced chemistry lesson involving chemical reactions. They wrap up by viewing video segments of many different types of fireworks and explaining the principles of chemistry and pyrotechnics that create all their glory.
- Learn that the specific colors in a firework display are created when atoms of a particular element or a combination of elements are energized by the firework's heat
- Learn that the shape of the firework display is determined by the shape and structure of one particular component inside the firework
- Discover that each component of a firework has a role in the timing, sound, and visual display that make up a firework
For those doing the Pyrotechnics: It's Elemental and On Fire interactive activities:
- Understand that the chemical reaction necessary for the ignition of a firework is an oxidation reaction in which energy is released by the combination of oxygen with other elements
- Understand that when the energy produced by the chemical reactions inside a firework is trapped in a small space, heat is created much more rapidly than it is dissipated, resulting in combustion that causes the firework material to burn
Grade Level: 6-8, 9-12
(9-12, if more advanced interactive activities are used)
- One class period (two if the Pyrotechnics: It's Elemental and On Fire interactive activities are used)
- Fireworks! Making Color QuickTime Video
- Fireworks! Lifting Charge QuickTime Video
- Anatomy of a Firework Flash Interactive
- Pyrotechnically Speaking HTML Document
- Name That Shell HTML Interactive
For more advanced study
Suggested Tie-in Activities from Class
Many chemistry and physical science classes use the flame test to investigate the characteristic properties of elements. Fireworks are a wonderful application of this phenomenon. The principles of oxidation and combustion, which are the basis for fireworks, also apply to fire, redox reactions, and the functioning of gasoline engines.
Part I: The Colors of Fireworks
1. Start with a discussion about the last firework display students saw. Ask:
- What were your favorite types of fireworks? What was so special about them?
- How do you think fireworks are made?
- Where do the colors come from?
- What keeps fireworks from exploding too close to the ground?
2. Show the Fireworks! Making Color video and discuss the following:
- How are different elements used to make firework displays more enjoyable for spectators?
- How does this relate to the lab activity in which elements were tested over a flame? (if the students have already done this in class)
- What element is used to make your favorite color firework? Are some colors made by more than one element?
- What advances have been made over the years in creating color in fireworks, and what advances can you imagine for the future?
For more advanced classes, lead students in a discussion about the actual process in which electrons become excited and then drop energy levels to create specific spectral lines. Ask:
- Why does each element emit it's own unique combination of spectral lines?
- What causes the electrons to move up and down in energy levels within atoms in a firework?
3. Show the Fireworks! Lifting Charge video and discuss the following:
- What factors control the shape of a firework display?
- How is a firework launched, and what other applications of this technology can you think of?
- What components of a firework are designed for safety, for example, when launching near a crowd of people?
- What advances have been made over the years in the structure and launching of fireworks, and what advances can you imagine for the future? Give examples.
4. Have students do the Anatomy of a Firework interactive activity. They can choose a section of the firework and determine its function. If time and supplies permit, you may want to have students work in groups to build a model firework at this point and have them describe the function of each component.
5. Have students read the Pyrotechnically Speaking document. Follow the reading with a synthesis discussion on how particular elements determine the color of a firework and how the structure of a firework determines its shape and timing. Revisit the student predictions from steps 2 and 3 about advances in firework technology. How do they compare with Dr. Conkling's ideas for the future of pyrotechnics?
Part II: The Chemical Reactions in Fireworks
(Optional for more advanced chemistry content.)
6. Based on their experience with particular elements, have students predict which ones are used to make the different colors of fireworks. Have them use the Pyrotechnics: It's Elemental interactive activity to check their predictions.
7. Have students do the On Fire interactive activity. For each investigation, have them identify the key chemical principles that lead to fire: oxidation, combustion, and chain reactions, and have them explain what chemical reactions are involved.
Part III: Wrap-up for All Classes
8. Have students work as a group on the Name That Shell Interactive activity. Let them have some fun as they identify their favorite firework, and ask them to explain how it is created. In particular, they may be able to name the element that creates its color, the shape of the "star" that is used to create the shape of the firework, and/or how many stages are needed to create the timing of the firework.
Check for Understanding
Have students discuss the following:
- Explain how atoms of particular elements are used to create the colors of fireworks and what occurs inside each atom to create specific colors.
- Identify which components of a firework are fundamental to its operation and which are used optionally to create a particular effect.
- Explain how oxidation and combustion occur inside a firework and why they are necessary to make an explosion.