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January 27, 2012 The Case of the Missing Millionaire — Using Forensics to Teach Scientific Thinking By Stacey Burt
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Every year I begin my science class with a basic forensics unit from a book called Mystery Festival published by Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) of the University of California at Berkeley. Created for grades 6–8, the unit not only provides instruction on forensics, but also on the scientific method and thinking. Let’s face it, television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation remain extremely popular with the middle grade demographic, so what better way to engage students and get them excited about science right out of the gate?


    The case I use revolves around a “recently wealthy” young man named Felix Navidad who goes missing after a weekend get-together at his beach house. I set up the crime scene and read the scenario and statements to the students. They visit the scene of the crime, collect and test evidence, and hold a mock trial to determine what really happened on that fateful afternoon.

    Students examine the crime scene.

    The entire process takes my students about seven days to complete. Along the way, students collect and process data, discuss the importance of paying attention to every detail, and consider how detectives use science to solve mysteries and crimes.

    A "lawyer" cross-examines the witness.

    If you are not familiar with GEMS, I highly recommend checking out their Web site. Mystery Festival actually contains two mysteries: one for grades 2–3, "The Case of the Missing Teddy Bear," and "The Case of the Missing Millionaire" for grades 4–8.

    Students really get into the mock trial.

    In addition to this unit, I also use the ever-reliable Science Court program from Tom Snyder Productions. These mini units have been around since the '90s, but my students still love them. Designed to be run on your laptop and LCD projector or SMART Board, they are extremely engaging, with animated court cases revolving around science topics ranging from inertia to statistics (one of my favorites). They're perfect for intermediate grades and a great break from textbooks and standardized test practice. As a matter of fact, I have used these units as review before state testing, and it worked out well.

    I hope you consider trying one of these units or creating one of your own. Your students will adore you for it.

    Happy sleuthing—


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