Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
May 21, 1999

Students use science to solve whodunit

by Kevin Brown

Another crime has been committed and Gary Downs, interim chairperson for the curriculum and instruction department, couldn't be happier.

The "victim" is silent but the clues are numerous. They require a coordinated effort of "forensic experts" to finger the "perpetrator." Could it have been Albert Alkalinity, who is a "basic kind of person"? Or, maybe Betty Beaker, who really "measures up"? Dorothy Density, described as a "heavyweight in the community," also might be guilty.

An estimated 2,000 Iowa high school junior and senior students in 26 school districts worked together in April to solve the murder mystery using an array of chemical experi- ments, emerging technologies and Internet communications.

Downs said this forensics module, one of eight in the Iowa Chemistry Education Alliance (ICEA) portfolio, strives to make science education practical and hands-on. The ICEA is an ISU-initiated and led consortium of secondary and ISU science teachers.

The other seven projects involve learning to use technologies such as the ICN and Internet to report on a favorite chemical or element; analyzing diet and regular soda pop to determine densities; separating a five-component mixture of known solids and reporting results; using a spectrophotometric analysis to determine the percentage of copper in a penny; determining vitamin C content and comparing costs of orange juice brands; presenting a research report on the ICN; and collecting and running chemical analyses on water samples.

"These modules mirror real-life situations," Downs said. "It makes the subject matter pragmatic for students. And it takes excellent chemistry skills in the analyses to arrive at a sound conclusion."

This was the third year for a program that has grown in the number of participating schools and students each year. Schools are placed in teams that work together to unravel the forensics problem.

Downs said students in each school have certain elements of the mystery and must share their research. The Internet is used heavily for e-mail discussions, research and posting results to Web sites. Students also use fax machines and telephones to stay in touch as the mystery unfolds.

Students are provided seven clues from the "crime scene" -- finger-prints, hair samples, glass samples, clothing fibers, ink sample (from a message found at the scene), powders and handwriting analysis. Using these, they must prove scientifically that a suspect is guilty.

"This has turned out to be the most popular of the modules," Downs said. "It is a very good module for problem solving."

Local and state experts work with students in the classroom or parti-cipate via the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). They answer students' questions on collecting and analyzing evidence.

Some of the outside experts were asked by students to come back -- on their own time -- to answer more questions.

Kathy Burke, ICEA project manager and a graduate student, said the forensics module generates a great deal of student interest and interaction, including more than 100 e-mail messages.

For example, students asked each other about the difference between color and tint, and the difference between a hair follicle and the hair itself.

Burke said she has determined who the guilty party is. But she isn't sharing that knowledge -- the perpetrator won't be revealed until the project is completed and the students request the name.

Some student teams created videos of what the crime scene might have looked like. Adel students even worked up their own version of a "whodunit" that involves espionage and a break-in at the highest levels of state government. They hope the ICEA might adopt their plan, she said.

The chemistry teacher at East High School, Des Moines, credits the forensics module with increasing next year's chemistry class to 230 (from 160 students this year), Burke said.

The program also generated a grant from Sony to make needed improvements to East's ICN classroom.

Teachers who participate in the program come to campus for a summer workshop, at which plans are set for the coming year. Teachers also share their experiences with supplemental science programs.

Downs said the reward is in the excitement students feel for chemistry. The 24-year employee of ISU has focused his career on sparking and nurturing a joy of science in students.

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