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My Left-Field Lesson - Catching the killer

Bring science to life by investigating the forensics of murder

Bring science to life by investigating the forensics of murder

The school has become the scene of a crime. Mr Fitzpatrick, head of year for the 12- and 13-year-olds, has been murdered and suspicion has fallen on the group of teachers under his management. Fear stalks the hallways; accusations abound in the classrooms.

Before you start to wonder why a serious police matter is being discussed in such a lighthearted way, I should stress that this is not a real murder. It is a fictionalised crime staged as part of a forensics day we have run at our school for the past six years.

The idea began as an enrichment activity, an attempt to bring science to life. In science, we often teach concepts without having the time to actually see them in action. We felt we needed to change that, so we set up an annual day where students use their scientific skills to piece together a number of clues and solve a crime.

Using science in this way makes for memorable lessons for students. Police dramas and films are ingrained in popular culture, yet young people often don't realise that the investigations are based on science. Making that connection can have a significant impact on their engagement with the subject.

Here's how it works: students are presented with an unsolved murder. They are told that it is up to them to solve it. Clues - such as fingerprints, blood and trace chemicals - are left at the crime scene and students use these to piece together what happened. As each session ends, a member of staff is eliminated from the investigation using science skills, and by the end of the day only one suspect remains.

Last year, we tweaked this format slightly. In addition to the crime-scene investigations, a former student created a video presentation to enhance the experience. The children were shown snippets of the mock murder, and each suspect had a motive that they revealed to students via video. At the end of the day, once the students had finished the scientific tests, they watched another video that showed the whole murder. The culprit was then "arrested" by our in-house police officer.

This change made the day even more enjoyable for students because it enhanced the similarities to the police dramas and films they love. It motivated them to take the activities seriously and to call on as much scientific knowledge as they could to solve the murder.

The students really embrace the day each year and it is fantastic to see them engage with science. Although the crime investigation leads to solid learning outcomes, just as important are fuelling a passion for science and demonstrating practically how powerful it can be.

When we evaluate the forensics day with students, their comments are hugely positive and their level of interest in the subject matter is much higher. Despite the fact that it is incredibly difficult to put together and a lot of hard work for all involved - particularly the science teachers and technicians - the day is more than worth it.

Emily Wilgoss is deputy head of science at All Saints Catholic School in Essex, England.

10 ways to teach forensics

1. Classroom crime

Enter the world of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with this collection of activities on a range of forensic techniques. Practise chromatography and fingerprinting, and explore the science of DNA.


2. Under close scrutiny

Students practise their microscope skills, gathering forensic evidence using this presentation and activity on examining fibre samples.


3. Forensic approach

Engage children's interest in science by getting them to behave like real forensic scientists, with help from the Science Learning Centre. This video shows how a project can be prepared and planned.


4. Applied science

Support students' revision of

forensics using this summary booklet. It contains lots of student-friendly strategies, including a topic mind map, a revision checklist and helpful diagrams.


5. Fingerprint facts

Focus on fingerprinting in this introductory forensics activity for under- 11s. The handout includes clear instructions, pictures of different types of fingerprints and space for making prints.


6. Clue collection

Students complete a carousel of activities in this well-planned murder mystery lesson. The aim is to compile a booklet of all the evidence they have collected before using it to decide who the murderer is.


7. Scene of the crime

Try this well-presented set of comprehensive presentations that explore crime-scene processing and forensic techniques.


8. Keep a record

Support forensics lessons using this booklet. Students can record information about different forensic techniques on the adaptable worksheets.


9. DNA diagnosis

Use this resource to explain what DNA is and the part it can play in forensics.


10. Day of deduction

A full planning outline for a themed day on forensics. Students have to solve a crime by collecting evidence through different tasks.


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