Teaching children about science while watching fireworks

Watching fireworks with children is a great opportunity to teach them about science. Learn how asking questions can stimulate a science discussion.

Many people watched fireworks over the Independence Day weekend. To some people, the fireworks are “magic” but in reality they are science! It took years of experimenting to get to the exciting shows we see today. As we observe the colors, shapes and sounds, we are provided with great opportunities to learn about science.

In the cacophony of a fireworks show, it can be difficult to tell what is happening first; the boom or the lights. What causes the boom? Well there are usually two booms for each firework: one for the launch to get the firework up in the air and another for the explosion. We usually see the lights before hearing the second boom, because light travels faster than sound. If you are close to the launch site, the boom and the flash will be close together and as you move farther away, the sound and the light will be further apart. Have your youth count the time between the boom and the flash to determine how far away they are from the launch site (helpful hint: sound travels at about one mile every five seconds).

Aside from the lessons learned through fireworks and their sound, the festive shows can provide other learning opportunities as well. Ask your kids some questions during the fireworks show, and try to get them thinking about the “why” behind all those explosions.

  1. How do fireworks get different colors? The colors of fireworks are all about chemistry: strontium for red, calcium for orange, sodium for yellow, barium chloride for green and copper for blue.
  2. How do they get the colors to change in a firework? A color-changing firework is similar to a Gobstopper jawbreaker candy. As the outer layers burn off, there is a different chemical underneath it and the colors change.
  3. How do they get the different shapes? I have seen fireworks in circles, stars, hearts and even smiley faces. These varying shapes are based on physics. Firework manufacturers pack in small “packets” of chemicals (called stars) around a central explosive. The shape of the central explosive and the location of the stars determine the shape.
  4. Why do some fireworks last longer than others? Some fireworks have bigger stars than others, and they take longer to burn. The technicians setting up the show have to make sure the fireworks go up high enough so they “burn out” before they hit the ground.

Michigan State University Extension recognizes there are many opportunities for science education that occur in the natural world, including this one around fireworks displays. This lesson can be conducted by any group working with children, including families, day-cares, schools or 4-H clubs. Have fun learning!

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