The rise of the classroom sleuth

Pupils are using forensic technology to find out who buried the school skeleton. Amy McLellan reports
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The Independent Online

Roll over Miss Marple. The new breed of TV sleuth doesn't waste time peeping through the net curtains and taking tea with the vicar. As viewers up and down the country know, today's grisly murders are solved in the lab or on the pathologist's table. From Silent Witness to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the scientists are running the show and working out not only "whodunnit" but also "howdunnit" using state-of-the-art forensic technology.

It was while watching Channel 4's Time Team - a sort of archaeological crime scene investigation - that Emma Barber, a science teacher at Langley Park School and now at The Ravensbourne School in Bromley, came up with the idea of turning her school science classroom into a mini-pathology lab. As murdered corpses are not commonplace in leafy Bromley, she dismantled the school's skeleton and buried its bones in the grounds. The children had to carefully excavate, measure and log the bones on evidence sheets. They used online databases to work out the age of the "victim", the sex and likely diet.

"It's all about collecting evidence, which is what scientists do," explains Barber.

The Year 7 and 8 forensics teams didn't stop at bones. Sections of cauliflower soaked in soda crystals doubled for samples of brain tissue, which were then tested for oxygen depletion. Stomach contents - mimicked by a suitably lumpy soup - were tested for protein, carbohydrates and fat. When shaken together olive oil, water and red food dye were found to make a convincing blood substitute, including red blood cells and plasma.

"The different ingredients separate out when left to stand so the children could look at the proportions of the blood count," says Barber.

Finding the samples to be starved of oxygen, the children had to come up with convincing theories for the possible cause of death.

"It's getting them to use their science to make suggestions and then support their ideas with real science," says Barber. "The children say they feel like real scientists and that's a really nice comeback to hear."

The project has proved so popular with pupils that it has been showcased by London Grid For Learning's website for other teachers to copy. But Emma Barber isn't alone in finding that information technology can help make science more exciting and hands-on for pupils, who often find the curriculum, particularly at GCSE level, to be very content heavy. The use of interactive whiteboards and data loggers, for example, mean whole classes can take part in experiments with the results displayed, often in real time, on the whiteboard.

The science department at Hayes Secondary School in Bromley now has an interactive whiteboard in every science lab, which can be linked to a data logger to display the results of an experiment to the whole class.

"It means we can introduce a lot of variety in a single lesson, which a lot of children need today," says Richard Cracknell, who teaches physics and general science. "I can set an experiment going at the start of the class, then show a bit of a DVD or put an interactive presentation on the whiteboard, then get them working on their own experiments, and by the end of the lesson the main experiment might be ready and in five minutes we can have the results on the interactive whiteboard and I can draw out some good teaching points linking it all together."

It doesn't require cutting-edge ICT to spice up a lesson. Just an Excel spreadsheet can bring biology to life. Year 9 pupils at Hayes studied different varieties of tomatoes, taking measurements and counting seeds, with every group feeding their results into a spreadsheet.

"They were collecting measurements, collating the results, creating graphs and drawing conclusions," says Cracknell. "It got them used to handling statistics and questioning how many samples you need to get valid results."

This is a theme science teachers mention again and again when discussing the benefits of using ICT. In science, it's as important to understand how facts are determined as it is to learn those facts. To become good scientists, pupils need to learn how to question the world around them and develop the skills to set up experiments to test theories.

ICT can really help to develop those thought processes, says Tony Forsythe, head of science at Wootton Bassett School in Wiltshire. Interactive programmes that allow pupils to change the parameters of an experiment encourage them to question how the natural world works. He recommends Birchfield Interactive's Quantitative Chemistry (14-16-year-olds), Nervous System (14-16) and Forces & Motion (11-16) because they provide feedback to students so they can understand where they are going wrong.

"If a student gets a question wrong, it is important to know why, particularly in science when changing variables can affect the answers to a question," says Forsythe.

He also backs software that includes simulations of natural events. "If we're doing something on how light intensity affects photosynthesis, we can use software that mimics that and display it on the interactive whiteboard," says Forsythe. "You can build misconceptions in science if you do not understand the basic elements from the start but this helps them understand some quite complex concepts. It's like a living text book."

By Jupiter! A virtual trip to Europa

A team of international astronauts have landed on Europa, a frozen moon orbiting Jupiter, to establish a base from where they can look for signs of life in the liquid ocean under its 100km thick ice crust. But something goes wrong: their oxygen runs low, radiation levels soar and the ice is starting to crack.

This isn't the plot of the latest Hollywood blockbuster but a cutting-edge science project. It's been masterminded by the National Space Centre in Leicester and Nesta Futurelab. Pupils play the role of the Emergency Response Team charged with rescuing the astronauts, drawing on real-time data sent over the internet and a video conferencing link-up to a Mission Commander at the NSC to devise their rescue plan.

The children work in teams to cope with medical problems, navigational challenges, ice vibration readings and satellite data. The project is live and the mission commander responds to the pupils and can throw in extra challenges: perhaps an astronaut will break a leg.

"A lot of schools have video conferencing equipment but there's not an awful lot of content they can use ," explains Lyndsay Grant, a learning researcher on Space Mission: Ice Moon. The response to the programme, which is still being piloted with schools, has been very positive. "The children are totally on task and committed to saving the astronauts," says Val Allen, curriculum co-ordinator at the Frankley City Learning Centre in Birmingham, which has trialled the programme with Year 9 pupils. "Some teachers have been skeptical about the scientific validity of the project, but once they see it, they leave determined to do it again."

Grant says the programme challenges the children scientifically. "They have to monitor vital signs, plot triangulations and bearings and undertake very complex problem solving," she says.

There is some content (pupils become experts on the hostile environment of Europa) but its main purpose is to get the students thinking and working like scientists.

"They have to interpret data, then modify their explanations as new data comes in," says Grant. "Children learn a lot of facts in the curriculum but this is about understanding how scientists arrive at those facts. It's very authentic."