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A Skeleton in the Woods

Bright yellow crime tape cordoned off a section of the woods behind the Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. Students surveyed the human remains with detached, practiced eyes. Notebooks in hand, they sketched the scene in detail, using tape measures to measure the distance between possible evidence and fixed points at the scene including rocks and trees.

The students were confronted with the remains of a human skeleton, complete with a bullet lodged in the back of the skull. In addition, students noted several bullet casings strewn around the area, a shotgun shell, and a golf ball. Their job? Develop a presentation for the district attorney, summarizing their evidence and offering tentative conclusions on the cause of death.

Applied, authentic learning

The sixteen juniors and seniors investigating the skeleton in the woods are enrolled in the second of  two semester-long elective course, Forensics: Crime Scene Analysis, taught by Sharon Kreamer. Students come in with a range of experience in science and math, but in the 90 minute block class that meets every other day, they engage in hands-on, authentic applications of the science and math embedded in the course.

While the two elective courses are structured around four major projects throughout the year, Ms. Kreamer first helps her students learn about the basics of collecting, documenting and analyzing evidence. The students then have in-class lab experiences to immediately apply what they learn.

Over the course of the spring term, students participate in increasingly complex case-based problems that integrate handwriting analysis, forensic anthropology, the study of bite marks, ballistics, tool marks, fingerprints, and toxicology. The hands-on course is designed take scientific topics to practical, real-world situations. Along the way they develop a range of skills, including writing, observation, communication in writing and with images, crafting evidence-based arguments, and collaboration.

Ms. Kreamer explains that this form of learning “Engages kids who aren’t necessarily the best test takers.” Those that are more artistic, visually aware, or simply more observant excel in the course. “Not only that, but because the course is structured around teams of students working together, these students become that leaders in their groups.”

Real-world application

During the course of the spring term, Ms. Kreamer sets up three mock crime scenes:

  • A burglary in the library
  • The skeleton in the woods
  • A murder in the library

Each case is designed as an opportunity for students to demonstrate mastery and apply what they’ve learned in real-world contexts. Students approximate the same kind of work that they see as they watch CSI or other crime shows on television. They ask learn how to develop and ask good questions, and  critically analyze responses,  as they interview faculty suspects and witnesses. As they progress through the cases, they not only develop their knowledge and skills, they also learn how to collaborate more effectively with each other and hone their communication and presentation skills.

Perhaps most importantly, they learn how to develop a rich, evidence-based argument that they present to their peers, teachers, and community members. Just like professional investigators, they have examine the evidence, sift through what is unimportant, select and accurately perform tests, and analyze and synthesize what they have found. Perhaps most important of all, they gradually begin to understand the limitations of evidence and that their findings are simply their own interpretations.

In a few weeks, when most students will be filling out bubble sheets for standardized tests, Ms. Kreamer’s Crime Scene Forensics students will be listening attentively to a detective from the Wilmington Police Department brief them on their final “test” – a murder in the school library.

Sharon will be presenting at our upcoming iLab. It’s still not to late to register! Find more details on iLab and projects like Sharon’s at the iLab registration page.