Sunday, November 14, 2010

Classroom Detectives: Bringing the Real World to Your Students

You are sitting at a meeting with other teachers at your school talking about topics you want to cover this year. A couple of biology teachers are trying to figure out a creative way to teach carbon dating. The chemistry teacher is asking around to see if anyone knows of a good method for teaching chromatography. An English teacher is trying to think up an assignment in persuasive writing. The conversation could go on, but the principal steps to the front of the room to start the meeting. Discussions of field trips, state standards, and test score improvement are going on all around you, but your mind is still on the earlier chat. Is there a way to tie all these topics together to make a more meaningful educational experience for our students?

What if you could work together with other teachers to create a cooperative unit teaching all of these topics using a forensic science investigation? If you are not in a setting that allows for this kind of cooperation between teachers, you can do an investigative interdisciplinary CSI unit in your own classroom. It’s especially fun to do something like this as we get into the holiday season and students seem to start losing focus. The most time-consuming part of doing a unit like this is planning and practicing the activities. Luckily, there are lots of quality resources available on the web that have been tested in classrooms like yours.

The forensic science resources catalogued on The Gateway to 21st Century Skills will be very helpful to you whether you are planning to do a few activities or a long unit. To see if any of these activities might work in your class, start your Gateway search here. This list of 24 activities will show you the variety of topics and disciplines you can teach in a forensic science unit. There are resources available for many different grades, but most resources seem to be aimed for junior high and high school investigations.

One activity that interested me was Ernies Exit: Blood Typing Lab from Science Spot. I really like how the activity is designed for teachers who aren’t able to order specialty supplies from scientific suppliers. It is designed with everyday materials, and there are lecture notes and nicely designed worksheets and directions. If you like this lab idea, look through the entire 8th grade quarter-long unit here. There are some great ideas you might be able to adapt for your classroom, and they all include tips and worksheets.

Another well-designed lab about Ink Chromatography led me to a different set of forensic science lessons designed for 5th through 12th grade students. These activities from the Shodor Education Foundation are also nice since they can be done mainly with household materials. One that I am very interested to try with younger students is a lab for extracting DNA from yellow onions. You can access their list of forensic science activities here. This page also has links to some really neat online mysteries that you can use in a class with computers or in a computer lab. Check out these mysteries from Access Excellence created by the National Health Museum. Activities like this can add an element of fun and mystery-solving to your classroom without a whole lot of extra preparation.

Forensic science investigations aren’t only for science classrooms. The online mysteries above could be used in many different subject areas. An English classroom could include reading a mystery and writing a persuasive essay trying to convince the reader of a particular character’s guilt or innocence. A teacher could even hold a debate in class about the mystery. The Forensic Sketch Artist combines visual art and technology in an investigation, showing students that there is a lot more involved than chemistry and biology in forensics.

Teaching is a challenging job. You are constantly trying to hook your students so that they will be engaged in their learning. Tapping into online resources like these can help you bring quality activities into your class while still getting sleep at night! If we each try to implement one or two high-quality units like these each year, soon you will have a class that students won’t want to miss.

~Peggy's Corner - 11/12/2010~


  1. Fantastic! This is not only a fun way to learn, but it is transdiciplinary and weaves together the different subjects for kids. That doesn't happen enough!

  2. I missed this comment for a while...but I'm glad you liked the resources. Wouldn't it be great if we could weave together the subjects like this all the time? I love these activities, and I wish there were even more like them. I guess all our lessons would work like this in a perfect world. :)


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