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KES gifted students learn to solve whodunits during forensics activity

With the help of Dr. Bob Young from Georgia Youth Science and Technology Centers, gifted students at Kingston Elementary learned all about solving crimes during a forensic science activity Wednesday.

Broken into seven groups of three or four, the 23 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in gifted education teacher Brandi O'Tinger’s class spent about 2½ hours analyzing fingerprints and shoe prints as well as samples of synthetic blood, soil, powder, fiber, cookie bites and handwriting (looking for print or cursive, spelling and handedness) for seven suspects to determine who stole an important cookie recipe. 

"The cookie recipe was stolen, and a ransom note was left,” Young, regional coordinator of the Etowah GYSTC, said. "We have a suspect pouch at each table, and each pouch has a unique name and a unique set of evidence. And then there's a crime scene pouch. Right now, the detectives are at the crime scene. They're collecting information.”

O’Tinger said there “weren't a lot of details given about the suspects” to the pint-sized Sherlock Holmeses.

“We basically just knew their names,” she said. “Some suspects were Brenda Bold, Anna Almond, Kevin Kinderboss, Trevor Timidly.”

Young added he and O'Tinger agreed they didn't want the activity to involve a murder scene.

"We didn't want that in their field of view,” he said. “So it had to be something nonviolent so the cookie recipe, it was safe, but it was something we could collect a lot of evidence from." 

The part-time physical science teacher at Georgia Highlands College's Cartersville campus said only one suspect will match the crime scene evidence.

“Once they do all these seven, then we'll collect that then they'll be given a crime scene evidence pouch, and all the crime scene evidence pouches match,” he said. “Then they'll get a look at how does this crime scene evidence match up with one of these, and one of them matches perfectly."

Each group was given 15 minutes to analyze 10 types of evidence for each suspect and to record its findings on its official-looking clipboard. 

“The evidence that they're working with is a fingerprint left at the scene,” Young said. “The person who stole it left a cookie. They didn't finish the cookie so we've got a cookie bite so they're going to look at the cookie bite as evidence for their teeth. There was some soil left under the table from their shoe so we've got a soil sample. There was some powder left at the scene so there's a powder sample they're testing for. We've got a blood sample; of course, the blood sample is nonbiologic. It's a synthetic blood that works with the antigen A and antigen B. We're going to do the A, B, O [blood types]."

Young said the powder was either an antacid, which fizzed when water was added to it; baking soda, which fizzed when vinegar was added; salt; or sugar.

The fiber found on the suspect's clothes was either cotton, hair or string, and for the soil sample, the young investigators were trying to determine if it was sandy, clay or filled with plant life, he said. 

For the handwriting sample, the sleuths looked for a left or right slant, which indicated left-handed or right-handed; cursive or print; and spelling — there was a misspelled word in the ransom note.

"Those are a few things they'll get from the handwriting sample," Young said. 

They also compared the shoe prints to sample prints they had to determine what kind of shoe the suspect was wearing, which ended up being the most difficult part of the investigation, O’Tinger said. 

“The shoe prints were the most questioned evidence,” she said. 

After all the analyses were done, each group examined the crime scene evidence and compared it to the suspects’ evidence to find the guilty party.

"We talked about how you have to be very careful with evidence so that you don't incriminate the wrong person,” O’Tinger said. “If this was your job, you couldn't say, 'Oh, we think it might be this.' It has to be without a doubt."

Each team came to consensus, presented their findings as if they were presenting them to the jury and explained why that person needed to be charged, she said.  

And when all their work was done, the young detectives found Gregory Gruffest was the person guilty of stealing the great cookie recipe. 

“Each group ultimately solved it correctly,” O’Tinger said. “A couple of groups needed to review evidence one more time to make their conclusion. We allowed them to review the evidence from one suspect only one time because we felt that this was more like how they do in the real world.”  

Ty Scaglione, 11, said he thought the forensics activity was “pretty fun.” 

"It's good to mix stuff and kind of be like the investigator," the fifth-grader said. "I think the most interesting stuff is probably where we have to mix the blood and the A-positive stuff and find what kind of blood type it is."

Fifth-grader Brooklyn West, who was working with Carleigh Higgins and Leilah Bedford, said she thinks forensics is “really interesting.”

“I actually think it would be really interesting for me to kind of learn more about it,” she said, noting she learned how to analyze fingerprints. 

The 10-year-old said the most fun part of the process was “probably analyzing the blood type because you got to use anti A and anti B.”

“You got to mix and see what it is,” she said.

O’Tinger asked Young to conduct a forensics activity, which met the Georgia Standards of Excellence as well as gifted standards, with her class about two months ago. 

"This school year, our gifted teachers are doing forensics and mysteries,” she said. “So we're doing forensic science, investigations, and we're trying to make it where they can do something hands-on, not just studying and researching. We wanted them, after they research some, to use hands-on things to do. This puts them in the scenario where it could be a real-world example, which makes it more relevant to their learning."

The hands-on lab got her students away from their screens for a while as well.

“They use computers so much,” she said. “They’re on technology all the time, this generation, so just put that aside and do this for a little bit. They need more of that.”

O’Tinger also said students remember labs and hands-on activities “more than just memorizing facts.”

“So it does make an impact,” she said. “They’ll remember this for a long time.”

Young said the “great group of boys and girls” could learn about a number of things from studying forensics — careers, scientific safety in regards to handling materials, chemical processes and typing blood. 

"And they're using problem-solving, for sure,” O’Tinger added. “They're using logic. They're using teamwork. Careers — one of our main focuses is how can they use this, making it relevant to them, what they're going to do with this, not just right now, today, but what they're going to do with it 10 years or 20 years from now."

She also said the detectives were "doing good" with the activity from what she saw. 

"They're working well together,” she said. “They have said, 'This is really actually fun.'"

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