The crime lab was littered with test tubes, and pieces of ransom notes lay on various tables. Investigators wore goggles as they slid the paper pieces into test tubes.
On this recent afternoon, Rim Country Middle Schoolers in the CSI Club were learning the science behind identifying the type of ink used on a ransom note.
Called chromatography, the process is one of separating mixtures. Students slid pieces of paper into test tubes with acetone and looked to see if the resulting chemical reaction matched that of the ransom note.
However, students first learned about mixtures, solvents and compounds. The teachers asked for an example of a mixture.
“Skittles,” said one student. “You can separate them by color.” Other examples included trail mix and a salad.
“You guys are getting an early start in chemistry,” said co-advisor Barbara Toma.
The club began in August and, although attendance varies, co-advisor Barbara Quinlan said the response has been enthusiastic. “It starts at 3:45 (p.m.) and they are at my door at 3:45 (p.m.),” Quinlan said.
That Thursday, only a handful of students were present. However, those in attendance eagerly delved into the task at hand.
“We’re actually doing what real CSI people do,” said student Janine Tantimonaco. Her favorite club activity involved rolling toy cars in ink before pushing them across paper. Students examined the tire tracks to figure out which tracks belonged to what cars.
In the CSI Club’s case file, having the entire tire imprint to examine provided students an edge over the criminal, if there was one. “You’ll never get that at a crime scene,” Quinlan said.
The club is also an effort to increase students’ science fluency. This year’s results from the first standardized science test were poor statewide.
Rim Country Middle School eighth-graders performed significantly above county and state averages with 73 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards, compared to 42 percent at the county level and 50 percent at the state level. However, teachers say they will continue to work toward improvement.
“I think that it’s just a lot of fun,” said student Nick McMullen about the CSI club. “It sort of gives us a head start on what we might do later in life.” McMullen said science is one of his favorite subjects.
Quinlan said that the response has been positive from not only the traditionally academically gifted students, but also from special education students and those who have encountered the wrong side of police — “so now they deal with them in a positive manner.”
The school resource officer, David Vaughn, comes in the classroom, and “he has his whole uniform and they love it,” Quinlan added.
A couple of special education students who have joined the club on occasion are two of the most excited, Quinlan said.
Next summer, the teachers would like to offer a week-long CSI camp, and they eventually aim to enter the children into a competition which requires students to assess a set-up crime scene and solve the mystery.
“We’ve got to teach them more techniques first,” Quinlan said.
Financial constraints also pose difficulties for the potentially expensive class. The teachers have already spent money out of their own pockets, although they have applied for grants. The more money they find, the more cool stuff they can teach the kids.