Social Studies

Student Sleuths Tracking Down ‘Whodunit’ To Crack Core Subjects

By Michelle Galley — January 24, 2001 8 min read
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Wearing safety goggles and testing the pH of unidentified powders, Jocelyn Crosby’s forensic-science class at the Genesis II School here is at work on its final project: A millionaire has been “murdered,” and the class has been charged with finding the fiend who committed the crime.

Though the actual crime has been fabricated, the experiments, analysis, and report writing assigned to the 8th to 10th graders are quite real. They represent a large part of the semester-long course, which forges lessons in science and English/language arts.

Solving mysteries has become a popular technique for teaching the core subjects of English, social studies, and science to middle and high school students, as well as for teaching qualitative research to graduate education students. Indeed, forensic-science courses are popping up in schools around the country as more teachers are finding that the subject catches students’ attention in ways that a chemistry textbook and Moby Dick don’t.

“The students,” Ms. Crosby said, “participate much more eagerly in the forensics course than they do in other courses.”

Students aren’t the only ones excited about such courses. More teachers are starting to track down cloak-and-dagger course materials. At the National Science Teachers Association’s annual conventions, workshops on crime-scene investigations have been added to the agenda, and a featured presentation at a recent gathering was on DNA analysis.

“There is no doubt that [the subject] is growing in popularity,” said Cindy Workosky, a spokeswoman for the Arlington, Va.-based organization.

Matching Standards

At the 30-student Genesis II, an alternative school for students who have been expelled or have encountered discipline or academic problems in other schools within the district, the forensic-science class integrates lessons in creative writing with science lessons that include deductive reasoning and logic.

Ms. Crosby, who teaches the class in tandem with English teacher Carla Giorgi, introduces the course by explaining forensic science—essentially, the application of science to solving crimes—and reviewing the scientific method with the six students in her class.

The youths then attempt to solve a series of “mini-mysteries.” Each of the crime puzzles has a central focus, such as handwriting analysis, fingerprinting, fiber analysis, crime-scene sketches, photography, and even DNA testing, an increasingly critical tool in solving criminal cases. “I believe in the whole hands-on approach, and that is what I am able to do here,” Ms. Crosby said one recent morning amid such classroom accouterments as an evidence locker complete with fiber samples, crime-scene photographs, and a chart of suspects.

The 12-week course culminates in a murder investigation that incorporates the previous lessons. To keep the course fresh for future classes, the mystery is open-ended. Though the students are required to draw a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence, they never find out exactly whodunit.

The two predominant theories coming out of the latest class are that the victim, with help from a friend, faked his own death to collect life-insurance money, or that two of the victim’s friends conspired to snuff the millionaire so they could inherit his fortune.

Because the students are so jazzed about the subject, they are less intimidated by the science that goes into it, and are performing better than they do in other courses, Ms. Crosby said. In this class, most of the students are earning an A or a B; in the more traditional science classes she teaches, the average grade is a C. “They learn without realizing that they are learning,” Ms. Crosby said.

Ninth grader Malikah Major believes she is getting an A or a B. “It’s more interesting,” she said of the class. “It’s not that boring.”

A team of three veteran teachers at Wilson Middle School in Glendale, Calif., teaches a similar, but more integrated, course in crime-scene investigation.

They have written a book, Crime Scene Investigation, detailing the curriculum.

This year, 170 8th graders are involved in investigating a fictional break-in at the school library during which a set of baseball cards and a collection of valuable dolls were stolen.

The students begin by examining the crime scene, interviewing witnesses, and writing newspaper stories for their English class, taught by Barbara Harris. The students must apply to be lawyers, bailiff, criminologists, or reporters—roles they will play throughout the six-week class, which ends in a three-day trial. Ms. Harris’ students also read mysteries and compare the stories’ sleuths with themselves.

In the meantime, the students put the scientific method into practice in their science class by collecting and analyzing such evidence as soil, hair fibers, shoe prints, and fingerprints.

The course closely parallels one of California’s academic standards: planning and conducting an investigation, according to science teacher Robert D. Kiel. The students have to determine how accurate their information is, and “the test is going to be taking it to trial,” he said.

It is in social studies that the students focus most intensely on the trial itself, when they study constitutional rights and courtroom procedure. The case and the roles the students portray “transform everyone into an adult,” said Kris Kohlmeier, the social studies teacher. For example, the prosecutors “have to be very careful that they follow due process of the law,” he said.

Students’ enthusiasm for their criminal studies seems boundless. They regularly meet on evenings and weekends to work on their case. At times, Mr. Kohlmeier said, he will get 10 to 15 e-mail messages from students over the weekend looking for more detailed information, or asking if they can search a particular student’s locker. “It takes on a life of its own,” he said.

Delving Into History

At the 900-student Metamora High School in Metamora, Ill., Carole Ronane’s students stage a mock trial each year as well, but the crime they are trying is from 15th-century England.

Based on the classic mystery novel Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, Ms. Ronane’s British Literature class delves into the world of King Richard III, and tries to solve the age-old mystery of who killed two young princes in the Tower of London. (Some historians have argued that they weren’t killed at all.)

The class is split into two camps—the prosecution and the defense—to argue Richard III’s guilt or innocence in front of a student audience that has not read the book. Each student is required to speak at the trial at least three times, which adds the element of public speaking to the class. At the end of the trial, the “jury” deliberates its verdict. Last year, the jury found the monarch not guilty.

After the trial, Ms. Ronane discusses the case with the students and emphasizes that Tey’s version of the story, published in 1954, is not the only interpretation of the facts.

They also discuss character, reputation, and legal representation, as well as the appeal of lingering unsolved mysteries. “Anything that doesn’t get tidied up remains like an irritant in your mind,” Ms. Ronane said.

Model for Research

Solving mysteries doesn’t intrigue only adolescents, of course. Carole Shmurak, a longtime fan of mystery novels, teaches a course in qualitative research to graduate-level education students, mostly practicing precollegiate teachers, at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. “It solidifies the research for them—things we have been talking about abstractly,” she said.

Ms. Shmurak, who picked up the idea from Kathleen Bennett deMarrais, a fellow education professor, believes that sleuths can be good models for conducting research. “Detectives have ways of putting people at ease, and making people comfortable to get information out of them,” she said.

The gumshoes can also teach her students how to frame questions, be observant, maintain confidentiality, and keep their emotions—and subjectivity— at bay. “Almost 100 percent of it is transferable” to conducting research, she said.

Students submit a list of preferences to Ms. Shmurak, who then matches them with a book from her extensive private collection. For example, one student wanted a Midwestern waitress, so Ms. Shmurak assigned Sex and Salmonella, by Kathleen Taylor. Another wanted to read about an African- American detective, which led Ms. Shmurak to Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley.

But teachers need to be careful when they decide to use mysteries based on historical figures or events, Ms. Shmurak warned. “Some authors are more careful researchers than others.” She suggests ascertaining a book’s accuracy before assigning it.

Crossing the Line

Despite the appeal of solving mysteries and investigating fake crimes, some teachers have crossed the line and ended up on the firing line themselves.

A high school teacher in Covina, Calif., was fired this past fall for asking his students to write a fictional assassination plot and getaway plan.

And late last month, a private school teacher in Japan was disciplined for asking his students to plot the murders of the persons they would one day marry. The incident sparked stories in newspapers throughout the country.

Teachers at the Genesis II School in Plymouth Meeting faced another potentially sensitive issue: Some students enrolled in the program have had run-ins with the law themselves. And for many, violence plays a role in their lives.

Miki Garlin, the director of the program here, took those factors into consideration before deciding to go ahead with the forensic-science course. As a result, the teachers have tried to limit the aura of violence.

One possible climax for the mystery is that the victim faked his own death. The blood found at the crime scene turns out to be stage blood.

The focus of the investigation, Ms. Garlin said, is the evidence: “We’re promoting science; we are definitely not promoting crime.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Student Sleuths Tracking Down ‘Whodunit’ To Crack Core Subjects

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