'CSI' in the classroom

Unraveling a mystery -- crime scene investigation style -- doesn't sound much like schoolwork. But for eighth grade advanced science classes at H.E. McCracken Middle School, it was.

Armed with photos and police reports from the crime scene -- an imaginary two-car accident in front of the school -- students used math and science skills to measure skid marks for forensically mapping the accident.

Three classes at McCracken participated in "CSI Bluffton," a problem-based learning unit. The program was implemented by the Beaufort County School District.

Problem-based learning helps students learn to find solutions to realistic real-world problems, compelling students to ask questions and move toward self-directed learning.

Students used physics to figure out who caused the accident. They calculated speed based on skid marks and applied each of Newton's laws to the accident. They determined the cars' velocity and the distance they traveled after impact.

S.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. David Lee of Charleston, an accident reconstructionist, showed students how he applies Newton's laws to his job with the patrol's Coastal Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team.

"It is like having a puzzle with only half the pieces, and you still have to figure out what happened," Lee explained during a recent class. He was showing the students a theodolite, a device used to measure distances and angles at car accidents.

The project continued with court hearings against the driver who caused the accident. The classes wrapped up their studies by reporting on the accident through their choice of a video newscast for television or by writing a story as a newspaper reporter. They also gave PowerPoint presentations.

"One person ran a red light, and ran away from scene of the car accident because he was going to be late for school," explained Tanya Costa, McCracken science teacher.

One of the three-student teams found the CSI unit heightened their interest for future careers. Maccalia Swinton, 13, who wants to be a criminal psychologist, said she favored the "hands-on crime solving." Future anthropologist Alyia Brown, 13, said the visit from Sgt. Lee and the opportunity to interact more with her fellow students helped her learn.

Getting to play the part of the investigators they see on the "CSI" television shows also helped keep students' interest in the subject.

"I feel kind of like a detective," said Christionne Skinner, 13, who plans to study computer forensics. "I just like challenges, and it was an easier way of remembering Newton's laws."