CSI in the classroom

Clare Fenwick

Clare Fenwick is Senior Lecturer in Education: Computing at Oxford Brookes University. She did, however, start her career in Medical Science, later moving into teaching in post 16 education where she worked with vulnerable adult learners and their children. This is where she developed the CSI concept as a vehicle to teach science and ICT. Clare’s research interest is in the role of social media and learning; she uses a creative approach to delivering the primary computing curriculum focussing on the concepts and thinking process underpinning computing.

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Website: claresusan.edublogs.org/ Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Image Credit: flickr // ariii Image Credit: flickr // ariii

It has been quite a time since I started to use CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) as a hook to engage students into a range of key (and often for them, boring) subjects. For me it was Science and ICT (Information Communication Technology), but it can be used to develop literacy and numeracy skills, as well as those soft skills such as collaboration and problem solving that can be difficult to plan into busy timetables.

I started by using the CSI format for family learning projects where we were working with vulnerable families. As we developed the projects we could really see how the process helped the children to contextualise and understand concepts that they struggled with in school, like fair testing. It also helps with problem solving skills, and aids those who struggle academically to shine.

Originally we ran the projects over five days; this was exhausting and in the end we found that we could have the same impact over two days. For us there were a number of reasons for working over more than one day; it allowed us to use emails for requesting ‘reports’ and ‘lab reports’, giving the students a sense of agency, it allowed time for the ‘story’ to develop and, most importantly, for the group dynamics to develop. I am sure, however, that the general concept could be adapted to fit into a lesson, a series of lessons or a day activity.

My starting point for these projects is always the ‘crime’, creating the backstory, although the backstory needs to be a bit fluid to accommodate the flow of the ‘investigation’. When you are planning your ‘crime’, you need to remember to consider the skills that you would like the students to develop, as well as the resources available. Once you have decided on your crime you can then create the crime scene - the more realistic the better. You would be surprised just how willing even adults are to suspend reality. I managed to get some crime scene tape from eBay, which really helped to create the right atmosphere. We were usually lucky to be able to have a room as the crime scene so it was possible to close it off and keep it separate. We bought foot covers, hair covers and gloves for the ‘investigation team’ which were very popular and helped with the process of getting into character.

At the start of the project we briefly introduced the group to the crime scene, letting them look through the window in the door. They were given the preliminary reports that outlined the key features of the crime, and interview reports from some of the key figures. These were all created to look like official documents; again it is well worth taking the effort to do this. The group was then encouraged to discuss the crime and identify what they needed to find out. As small groups they went into the crime room to take notes about what they could see, they were also encouraged to take photos, videos and audio notes. This provides them the opportunity to develop their observational skills; you could even have them sketching the scene developing their observational drawing skills.

Alongside the crime-solving we had activities to help to develop an understanding of some of the underlying scientific concepts, such as fingerprinting. We did find, however, that it was impractical for them to dust the ‘crime scene’ for fingerprints’ but we created prints taken from the scene that were used in the final reveal of the perpetrator; this got them to compare the prints against their suspects. They also did some chromatography with plants as a basis for understanding DNA fingerprinting; and providing ‘DNA profiles’ in the final reveal process as a way of confirming their deductions based on the evidence they collected through the investigation. The ‘DNA profiles’ were created by printing lines of varying thickness onto old fashioned acetate so that it looked like a profile.

Whilst looking at blood spatter we found that the students struggled with the concept of the differing forces behind a venous or arterial blood spatter. That was until we brought in the heart and lungs of a cow. We could then demonstrate the physical difference between an artery and vein, explaining the impact on the spatter of the heart pumping. Having the lung with the trachea attached allowed us to demonstrate why it would be difficult to strangle someone.

It probably won’t surprise you just how popular these activities were once we got past the squeals. The blood spatter activity also allowed us to look at fair testing. The students were asked to drop droplets of paint from a range of heights, describing the type of pattern it makes and to measure the diameter of the drops on the paper. As the drops on the paper often created spots of varying diameter and shape, it allowed the students to have discussions about why this was.

It also allowed them to decide how they could be sure that they found the ‘true’ diameter of a drop, which brought them to an understanding of fair testing. In some projects the ‘crime’ created evidence related to footprints found at the scene, so we looked at foot prints; getting the students to paint the bottom of their shoes, walking along a length of lining paper and considering the difference in the prints, the strides and how these may relate to the size of the person.

During project the students would be encouraged to discuss the evidence and identify the reports that they would require to solve the crime. We would then create these reports, which could be from CCTV cameras, interview notes or lab reports. There were times when they asked for evidence that we had not even considered, but it was usually easy enough to create a report to address the points that they raised. Towards the end they were encouraged to develop a timeline of the crime using the evidence to deduce who the perpetrator was. It is particularly important to get them to use their problem-solving skills and discuss the merits of each argument. They could then use evidence such as fingerprints or the ‘DNA profile’ to confirm their decision.

As you can see, there are a number of ways that you could use the CSI format to develop a range of skills. There are endless possibilities; for example, if you were to link to literacy you could get students to do some creative writing linked to the crime, or develop a report for newspaper, website or TV. The availability of easy-to-use handheld technology such as smartphones and tablets can make it easy for students to track their journey through the project and create a report at the end.

Have you employed any CSI methods in the classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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