High school students solve UBC murder mystery

A researcher is found dead hunched over her lab bench, and seven suspects are in custody. Now it’s up to 30 high school students to determine who killed her.

That’s the premise for “CSI at the LSI,” a murder mystery-based science outreach program for high school students. The program, designed to get students interested in science as a career, is hosted by UBC’s Life Sciences Institute (LSI).

Students from Grade 10-12 are invited to the LSI, where graduate students and post-docs set the scene: a female graduate student has been found dead at her bench, and the students must use basic scientific techniques to test evidence collected from the scene and find her killer.

A workbook provides additional background, and includes mug shots and possible motives for each suspect. The workbook also contains methodology for the experiments the students will be performing, along with prepared samples of blood, skin, hair, and saliva.

Students are broken up into groups and assigned one of four samples, which they evaluate using DNA analysis, protein analysis, fluorescence imaging techniques, or classical microbiology procedures.

After completing their workshops, students are asked to reconvene to share their results and use deductive reasoning to rule out suspects one-by-one.

“It was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be,” one student from Eric Hamber Senior Secondary said in his post-workshop feedback. “It was cool to see how the electron microscope worked.”

“Everyone was really helpful,” said another. “We learned how to use a pipette and how bacterial cultures are grown. It was great to do the experiments ourselves in a real lab.”

“These students are a motivated bunch,” says their teacher Brenda Dowle, head of the science department at Eric Hamber. “Still, being part of CSI at the LSI was a real eye-opener.

“I could see the passion and excitement in their eyes while they were doing the workshops.”

Initially designed as part of Celebrate Research – UBC’s week-long celebration of research and its impact on the society – the program has been popular with students, teachers and now has received attention from academia and government funders.

The program’s methodology was published in the December 2010 issue of the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education and was recently awarded $14,500 from Year of Science, a Province of B.C. initiative that encourages youth to explore the world of science.

The grant will allow LSI to host an extended, two-day version of the program for schools outside the greater Vancouver area and cover the cost of meals, transportation and overnight accommodation for students, teachers, and chaperones, as well as an expanded number of hands-on activities.

The expanded program will also build in more time for students to spend with graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, as well as a panel session with members of the LSI who will share their educational experiences.

“At the end of the day, the students gather to use the results from the workshops to determine the killer,” says Santiago Ramon-Garcia, co-creator of the program. “It’s great to see them collaborate and share what they’ve learned.”

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