Kids get lessons in crime

Caper: Middle schoolers use math, science and language skills to solve a mystery

May 08, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

On an unseasonably hot afternoon at a private Annapolis school last week, a social studies teacher was taken away in handcuffs, charged by the student body with kidnapping the school's cookie baker -- a particularly scandalous offense in a place that reveres recess and snack time.

The crime hinted of a teacher-orchestrated conspiracy. The warm chocolatey smells that students had come to expect to waft through the halls were missing. And no wonderful smells meant no cookies -- and no sweets to sell, bringing their fund-raising effort to a halt.

So to find the missing baker, pupils at St. Martin's Lutheran School launched a full-blown investigation as part of an imaginative lesson plan of science teacher Gina Goncz, who has been sharing the crime scene concept with teachers statewide in recent months.

Using lessons from their math, science, English and Spanish classes, the pupils worked with police officers and lawyers to figure out evidence and bring the suspect to trial, which ended yesterday.

The "kidnapping" took place in the school lobby, where the cookies were baked each Wednesday and sold as a fund-raiser.

The fictional cookie baker "Otis" and his famous "Otis Spunkmeyer" cookie dough were discovered missing two weeks ago; a ransom note was taped to the cookie oven.

Jeff Cover, director of the Anne Arundel County police crime scene unit, showed the pupils how to process the scene. Taping off the area, they collected a piece of candy, a footprint and a powdery dust they tested in the science lab and determined to be chalk.

Middle school pupils translated the ransom note that was written in Spanish, analyzed rudimentary DNA evidence, including hair and synthetic blood, and mapped the crime scene using mathematical formulas.

All the evidence pointed to Diane Pastrana, a social studies teacher and sponsor of the Student Government Association, who was rumored to be jealous that her fund-raisers weren't as successful as the cookie sales.

She was arrested Wednesday by Annapolis city police who normally teach the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program at the school.

When the case went to trial yesterday, the pupil investigators testified as expert witnesses. The interrogation by parents who are practicing lawyers forced them to articulate what they had learned.

They explained how they deciphered the ransom note and protected the evidence from contamination.

In the end, Pastrana was convicted despite the efforts of her defense attorney, who has a record of winning acquittals in past trials by attacking pupils' credibility with questions such as: "So, what grade did you get on your last math test?"

Scores of teachers were intrigued with the project when Goncz presented it at a teacher in-service training session at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore and at the National Science Teacher's Convention in St. Louis, both in March.

"It went over very well," said Joyce Trageser, supervisor of school programs at the Science Center.

Many teachers expressed interest in the curriculum, in part because it is an engaging approach to often-disliked subjects such as science and math. It also combines lessons from several subjects -- a popular teaching method known as crossing curriculum.

"The hands-on approach to science is something we really stress," Trageser said.

Although only middle school pupils at the K-12 school were charged with solving the crime, the caper interested many others because no one could order cookies while "Otis" was missing.

Although crime-scene labs are included in some textbooks, Goncz said they're not as exciting to the pupils as these scenarios. But Goncz said she and the school administrators initially worried that parents might "freak" when they saw crime scene tape in the lobby.

But, she said, "They've all been really supportive.

"The whole reason I started this is because students always ask me, `How does this apply to real life? When will I ever need to know this?'" Goncz said. "And they really like the mystery of it."

They also cheered the judge's sentence: Pastrana was ordered to buy them all cookies.

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