||How are fireworks made?
This activity is a Directed Activity Related to Text
(DART) introducing what is behind the explosive power of fireworks. The
activity provides opportunities for group discussion and empathetic
writing through the eyes of a fictional child worker (Alice) in a
blackpowder (gunpowder) factory.
The activity follows on from What is in a
Students will recognise that:
- the explosive called blackpowder, or gunpowder, is made from a
mixture of chemicals
- making blackpowder often used to involve unpleasant working
Sequence of activities
||Introduce blackpowder as the explosive ingredient in
fireworks. Explain to the students that they are going to find out
more about blackpowder, or gunpowder.
||Arrange the students into groups of three or
Give each student a copy of Making blackpowder.
Choose one or more students to read the background material to the
Invite students to imagine what the blackpowder factory must have
||Set up the group activity in one of the following
- Task all the groups to answer the questions as set.
- Invite different groups to look at the text from different
- working conditions
- scientific procedures
- chemical reactions mentioned or hinted at in the text.
- Organise groups to respond in different ways to the background
material, such as:
- writing a dialogue between Alice and a work colleague, a member
of her family or the ‘boss’, including an explanation of one or more
of the processes she has to work on
- designing a role play to show Alice at work to ‘act’ in front of
- carrying out an interview with the owner of the factory, asking
about the working conditions and the procedures
- researching the history of blackpowder further – is it still
made today? If so, how? In what ways have people’s working
This strategy may require extra time to carry out additional
Allow about 30 minutes for students to respond to the text and
work through the questions.
Supervise as groups designate a spokesperson to feedback the
results of their work to the class.
||Bring the groups together for a plenary.
Depending on the strategy used, invite student(s) to give their
group’s outcome(s) to the class.
Ensure that the outcomes from the groups are shared, to reach a
common understanding of the answers to the questions, as well as a
sense of how it must have felt to be Alice.
Widen the discussion with further questions.
Why was so much blackpowder needed?
What happened to the blackpowder after it left the factory?
How is blackpowder made today? - if this question has not been
covered by group work.
||Collect the answer sheets. Give written feedback,
emphasising the extent to which students have grasped the chemical
principles behind blackpowder manufacture and understood the
conditions under which it was made.
Assessment for learning commentary
Using this material creatively, teachers can stimulate discussion and
It is as a result of hearing each other’s reactions to the text and
their answers to the questions that students are exposed to a range of
ideas from which they draw a consensus view. The process of discussion in
groups and the evaluation of outcomes, in the plenary, promotes a sharper
understanding of the ideas they explore.
Supportive written feedback deals with any remaining confusion between
the story and the chemical principles and processes.
For each student
Note the spelling of sulfur as sulphur in the text.
- Information includes: alder and willow trees cut into 3‑foot sticks;
sticks are placed in a cylinder; cylinders are placed in a furnace; wood
burns partially and makes a black stick; charcoal is cooled and ground
to a powder.
- The carbon would make carbon dioxide gas. This is not charcoal and
would be given off into the air.
- Carbon monoxide 2C + O2
- The sulfur rocks cannot be used as they are.
- Sulfur dioxide. This is formed when sulfur burns in air.
S + O2 SO2
- For example, ‘Water is added to the grough and the soluble salts
dissolve making a solution. Insoluble impurities sink to the bottom. The
solution is boiled and the liquid transferred to a cooler. The solution
evaporates slowly and crystallises.’
- 75% potassium nitrate, 10% sulfur and 15% charcoal.
- The powder will not explode.
- She weighs out 30 pounds of nitre, 4 pounds of sulfur and 6 pounds
of charcoal into a box, sets the turner and mixes these substances. When
they are mixed, she puts a bag underneath the box, pulls a slide and
releases the powder into the bag.
- 40 / 22 or 0.454 x 40 = 18.16 kg
- Safety precautions include:
- Changing clothes to avoid taking blackpowder to a place where there
might be a flame.
- Not smoking in the factory.
- Wearing leather‑soled shoes ‑ metal soles may create a spark.
- Not going ‘between houses’ to help prevent mixing of chemicals that
could explode when together.
- Not wearing any metal items that could create a spark.
- Not very ‑ there was an explosion at the factory. Other precautions
could be: wearing safety goggles and protective clothing, working in
more isolated conditions.
- Points from the text are:
- a 12 or 14 hour working day
- poor pay
- getting hurt, ill or injured
- being beaten for falling asleep
- being fined for disobeying rules
- working as a young child
- doing heavy labour (turning the mixing box, lifting)
- working with the permanent risk of explosion
- inhaling toxic gases
- working in a very hot environment.
V. Kind, Contemporary chemistry for schools and colleges.
London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2004.