Maryland 3rd-graders at a crime scene camp

Students from across Maryland participated last week in a camp that featured a crime scene, the Baltimore Sun reports (tiered subscription model). They were detectives, and they had to piece together clues to solve a murder.

In the process, they had to learn about cells and molecules, the human body, and a substantial chunk of how to perform experiments in chemistry and reach conclusions based on the results. They also explored careers that deal with crime scenes, including police officer, detective, and forensic scientist.

“It’s just fun for me because I want to be a scientist when I grow up, so I like doing experiments. I like mixing things together and trying to see what they make,” the Sun quoted one rising third-grader as saying.

The first student to arrive at the camp was chosen as a plant. He didn’t have to do any of the investigation but the facilitators at the camp “just wanted [him] to be the bad guy,” he told the Sun.

Exploring by Participation

Laws—not to mention general safety guidelines—usually don’t let teachers use real blood for camps like this, but that’s easy enough to fix. Facilitators at this camp, from Mad Science of Central Maryland, used strawberry syrup.

Next problem to fix: How do we get schools to set up things like this on a regular basis? Kids and adults alike are fascinated by crime scene work. It’s more of a problem with adults, as research out of the University of Arizona, for one, suggests. The documented “CSI Effect” causes “popular fiction about forensic science” to affect “the public’s expectations about real forensic science,” and this raises the bar in terms of what people expect from prosecuting attorneys when they sit on a jury.

However, for kids, this can be a valuable learning experience. Kids’ brains are wired, in this digital age, to accept information from multiple channels at once. They process it, weed out those parts they don’t consider important, and put it all together to solve a problem in front of them. In this case, they’re solving a fictitious crime, but the end product is not as important as the learning that takes place along the way.

For example, it can be imagined that students at this camp had to learn about blood and the human body. Information about blood might come from an Internet site, while information about the human body might stream in from a poster on the wall at the camp. I don’t know how it was, but let’s just imagine.

Show them that poster about the human body in a classroom lecture, which is completely out of context and has no value to them at the time, and the chances they’ll remember it aren’t very good. But put the information about the human body into the context of a crime scene, which they’re highly interested in, and that information gets remembered.

Let’s learn from our own experience. We know the majority of our vocabulary is learned from context, not from reading a dictionary. For example, see Chapter 6, “Most Vocabulary Is Learned from Context,” by Robert J Sternberg of Yale University, in The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, $90). The book was published in 1987, but I have yet to read a more complete explanation of why context is so important to learning. Why would we assume information about the human body—or any other subject—is best learned any differently, such as from a lecture or an Internet site?

Furthermore, we know the information itself is the same whether it’s streaming out of context or in context, and it might even be coming from exactly the same source—a teacher, an authoritative website, flashcards, an app, or who cares? But out of context, it’s just another stream of information that needs to be ignored, because it’s competing with too many other information streams. However, kids’ brains pay attention to the stream if it’s important for the task in front of them. So, just give them those tasks as part of a context of learning.

That is, if kids really want to solve a crime, then information about the human body is important. There’s a much greater probability they’ll remember it if it’s streamed into their brains in context. Otherwise, most of them will just shift away from the context and pay attention to a context that’s more important to what they’re doing.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.