Experiential Learning: Was Mr. Buckingham Murdered?

Was it Mr. Jackson in the lunch room with the knife? Or was it Professor Plum in the laboratory with the lead pipe?

It’s early Monday morning and Mr. Buckingham has been found dead in the science building. The room was immediately cordoned off, and apart from the coroner having already come and removed the body, the scene remains untouched.

This is the scenario our Grade 10 science students – newly minted as Crime Scene Investigators – were presented with as they walked into the potential crime scene.

After a few classes spent learning about the forensics process – fingerprint development, wound examination, chromatography (analyzing ink), hair analysis and more – students were placed in the fictitious crime scene and told to treat it as if they were professional forensic scientists solving a real crime.

“What we liked about forensics is it involved just about every other science in one way or another. It involves earth science, chemistry, physics, biology, and it gives the students some really good experience putting into practice the techniques they’ve learned up to Grade 10,” says Mr. Steve Kerr, co-head of science.

In September, SMUS launched a grade-wide experiential program for all Grade 10s. While the more flashy piece of the program has been the off-campus afternoon expeditions and the week-long expeditions in June (which run next week), just as important has been adding an experiential element to all Grade 10 courses for students to apply in-class lessons to real-world scenarios.

“They’re solving these crimes using the skills they’ve learned throughout the year,” says Ms. Becky Anderson, Director of Leadership Development. “The students have the academic background to solve these crimes, but they’re expected to use their communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills.”

Science teachers set up three different but similar crime scenes that students (in groups of four) treated as the real thing.

“We told them ‘The police suspect that a murder has taken place, but they’re not sure. Your job is to go in with your team and collect evidence, take photos, make notes, make a sketch of the crime scene, and analyze all the evidence you’ve collected.'”

Like an in-depth version of Clue, students have to determine the cause of Mr. Buckingham’s death. If the evidence points to murder, they must find who was responsible, and what the murder weapon and motive were.

Each room contained a wide swath of evidence, with some relevant to the murder and others red herrings to throw students off.

“An important part of being a forensic scientist is you have to be able to look at all the evidence and critically analyze it. Bringing in the skills of being critical and creative to bring all the pieces together allows you to see that not everything you discover gives you an answer or gets you closer to solving the crime,” Steve says. “Even if one of their findings doesn’t help them solve it, the students are getting experience putting all those forensic skills to the test in a real-life scenario.”

Each team of students has one member who is an expert on soil analysis, footprints, ballistics and wounds; one member doing powder analysis and chromatography; one member analyzing hair and fibres; and one member doing blood and fingerprint analysis.

Students also had access to fictitious autopsy and police reports to help provide a bit of “professional expertise” to guide them in their crime-solving ways.

“The big thing about experiential learning like this is just the spark that keeps their interest in science going. It isn’t just sitting in the classroom and being given theory you end up having to regurgitate,” Steve says. “The end result is showing them there is a practical aspect to what you pick up in class. It’s been great doing this – you look at the energy level and the interest, and they’re so engaged and excited.”

This isn’t the first crime that Grade 10 students had to solve a crime this year. In November, math students were tasked with finding the culprit who shot Mr. Andy Rodford with a foam dart – just another example of applying in-class lessons to real-life situations.

(photos by Kyle Slavin)

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