Mysteries and whodunits

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I must admit I’m a fan of mystery novels—from Nancy Drew to Sherlock Holmes, from Agatha Christie to Tony Hillerman. I enjoy trying to follow the clues and the thinking process of the protagonist. In contemporary stories (and TV programs), it’s also interesting to see how science is part of the investigation.
The interdisciplinary activities that are shared in this issue show how learning science can be embedded into interesting and purposeful activities that can be applied to everyday events. High school teachers could adapt these activities and use them as club activities or for those days in between units. I’ve noted the SciLinks topics that would support the content or include additional activities. [For starters, try Forensics]
The Case of the Missing Zooxanthellae is whodunit simulation in which students analyze clues to solve a mystery. One of the clues in this case is DNA. I’ve seen activities that had students string beads to illustrate DNA molecules, but in this activity, students “analyze” DNA models to solve the mystery. The article also includes a Reader’s Theatre-type script and background information on the topic for the teacher. [SciLinks: Coral Reefs, Cnidarians, DNA Fingerprinting]
The author of Who Stole the Doughnuts describes in detail the lesson that she and her colleagues developed, complete with a crime scene, suspects, and activities for students to analyze clues in hair and soil samples, handwriting, fingerprints, and footprints. She concludes by saying “… it was difficult to tell who had more fun—the students or the teachers.” Perhaps it would be effective to share the fun and have the students use what they learn to create additional mysteries for younger students. [SciLinks: Fingerprints]

To solve the mystery in Spooky Suspects, students analyze unknown substances to determine the presence of protein, sugar, starch, and lipids. Rather than isolated lab exercises, students see the application of these tests. [SciLinks: Proteins, Lipids, Starches]
If you and your students are thinking of creating your own whodunits, the article The Move to Movies: Instruction That Engages has suggestions for using video editing software (that now comes with many computers). Perhaps you or a student will be the next Alfred Hitchcock!
It’s no mystery that students are interested in electronics and music. A Middle School Sound Study shows how to incorporate those interests into a unit on sound, culminating with students building speakers for an MP3 device. [SciLinks: What Is Sound?, Waves, Resonance, Characteristics of Waves, Using Waves to Communicate]
A Coprolite Mystery: Who Dung It? should be very appealing to middle schoolers. I learned that a coprolite is fossilized excrement, and it’s an example of a “trace fossil” rather than the actual remains of an animal. (Owl pellets are another form of indirect evidence). The author provides a lot of background information, photographs, and class activities. [SciLinks: Fossils, Excretory System]
Flooded! describes activities to help demystify the relationship between climate change and sea level. [SciLinks: Water Cycle, Sea Level Change, Change in Climate]  Although it’s not technically a mystery or whodunit, the article Windmills Are Going Around Again demystifies this renewable resource with activities (using the 5E model). Several years ago, I was part of a PD workshop that used wind energy as the focus for helping teachers develop inquiry lessons. Two resources (also mentioned in the article) that we found useful were Kidwind and Wind from the US Department of Energy. [SciLinks: Wind Energy]
One mystery to many teachers is the misconceptions people have about the reason for the seasons. Just in time for the equinox, the Scope on the Skies column focuses on this topic. [SciLinks: Reasons for the Seasons, What Causes Earth’s Seasons?]
It’s easy for students to focus on the novelty of these mysteries and whodunits. It’s essential, therefore, for teachers to help students make the connection between these engaging activities and the science behind them.

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