Math, Science, Balloons & Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

ELF ON THE SHELF 2012 Macy'sIt’s that time of year again to do a Thanksgiving themed post. I looked back at what I wrote last year around this time, Engaging in Thanksgiving Data, all about interesting data focused around Thanksgiving (food data for example). Still relevant, if you want to take a look at some of the links to use with students. But obviously I need to do something different for this post.

So, the question then becomes what? If not data about Thanksgiving, what other math/science connections can I make relevant to this particularly U.S.-centric holiday?  The answer – the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the large balloons. Thanks to NPR and ScienceFRiday videos/stories, there is already a great video and some interesting math and science that goes on behind and within those large floating balloon animals/creatures that you see in the parade coming up this Thursday.

Did you know? (facts from Francie Diep’s 2014 article in Popular Science, The Science and Engineering of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Balloons)

  • When staffers come up with a new design for a balloon, they first mold it in clay. Then, to help them calculate how much helium it would take to fill the design, theymacys-parade-2012-pillsbury-doughboy-balloon use good old water displacement.
  • The average balloon requires 12,000 cubic feet of helium. That’s enough to fill about 2,500 bathtubs.
  • The average balloon requires 90 handlers during the parade. Handlers must weigh at least 120 pounds and have no heart, back, or knee problems.
  • The balloons were originally made of rubber. Now, they’re made of fabrics coated in a polyurethane material that’s flexible, durable, and leak-resistant. Polyurethanes are synthetic plastic materials that also commonly show up in couch cushions, insulation, and even in synthetic-fiber clothes.
  • The Pillsbury Dough Boy Balloon pictured above requires 90 handlers, is as high as a 4 story building (so how high is that?), as wide as 7 taxi cabs, and as long as 9 bicycles (so how long??).  And has enough dough to make 4 million crescent rolls….wow!

That’s a lot of math/science going on here: scale modeling, volume, physics, estimation, weight, measurement, and geometry to name a few concepts. Think of the interesting questions that students could ask and then explore! Doing this prior to the actually parade on Thursday would be so much fun, and then having students actually watch the parade and maybe collect some data – i.e. how many balloons, how many people on a specific balloon, what is an average balloon and what would a bigger than average balloon be?

You can even find out about the specific balloons that will be in the parade and other interesting information that you could use to spark some math/science questions prior to the parade. Here are some links that give some facts about balloons and the parade itself:

And finally, here’s a video on the math/science behind the balloons from ScienceFriday