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Zach Nichlos jots down notes during the first day of the inaugural Mystery Festival held recently at Cummings Elementary School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Students in grades four, five and six used science to try and solve a scripted murder mystery, complete with clues such as footprints, fake blood and a body outline.
Zach Nichlos jots down notes during the first day of the inaugural Mystery Festival held recently at Cummings Elementary School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Students in grades four, five and six used science to try and solve a scripted murder mystery, complete with clues such as footprints, fake blood and a body outline. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Zach Nichlos jots down notes during the first day of the inaugural Mystery Festival held recently at Cummings Elementary School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Students in grades four, five and six used science to try and solve a scripted murder mystery, complete with clues such as footprints, fake blood and a body outline.
Zach Nichlos jots down notes during the first day of the inaugural Mystery Festival held recently at Cummings Elementary School at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Students in grades four, five and six used science to try and solve a scripted murder mystery, complete with clues such as footprints, fake blood and a body outline. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Melissa LaChance, left, and Lauren Day examine a pair of sunglasses left at the "crime scene" during Cummings Elementary School’s Mystery Festival.
Melissa LaChance, left, and Lauren Day examine a pair of sunglasses left at the "crime scene" during Cummings Elementary School’s Mystery Festival. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Jacqueline Armour reaches for a clue at the "crime scene."
Jacqueline Armour reaches for a clue at the "crime scene." (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — With latex gloves, notebooks and magnifying glasses, it was time to play detective.

Not at home in the basement, away from pestering parents, but at school.

Welcome to Mystery Festival, five days of scientific sleuthing at Cummings Elementary School.

For an hour a day recently, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders pored over a crime scene, ran forensic tests and pondered “whodunit?”

“It’s fun,” said student Monica Bolden. “It’s like a mystery and I like mysteries.”

What gets kids interested in learning is no mystery to gifted-education teacher Carol Miller, who organized the school’s first Mystery Festival this year: Hands-on learning.

“The theme is using science to solve a mystery and using mystery to draw students into science,” she said.

The lesson’s only hands-off portion was equally exciting, the students said: Office of Special Investigation agents spoke to them beforehand about real-life detective work.

The fictional mystery, “The Case of the Missing Millionaire,” involved a victim and suspects with comical names, but the plot could have been lifted from the TV drama “Law & Order”: Felix Navidad was found dead after a house party with four of his closest friends — but police find no blood on the body and no sign of external injury. The body later disappears on the way to the morgue.

A learning kit from the University of California at Berkeley sets the stage. It came with the script, clues and instructions on how to run forensic tests on the evidence.

Students, for instance, burn a mystery thread and compare its ashes to both a cotton and wool thread to find a match. They compare fingerprints, examine handwriting on a secret note and run a pH test on a mysterious brown stain.

Theories abounded.

“We think Gene killed Felix because Gene’s footprints head straight to the body,” offered one student.

Miller kept a tight lid on the answer until the end of the unit — that there wasn’t one.

“The author doesn’t say whodunit,” she said. “If he did, then it would be a giveaway.”

The students decided how to draw their own conclusions — options included writing their own story, taking a class vote or simulating a courtroom trial.

“So far, my impression is they really, really dug it — they really were part of the mystery,” Miller said.

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