The Case Of The Mystery Note

Project URL: http://nrhs.org/Departments/Science/Forensic/

How it works:
In this program, students process information and master the skills needed for document analysis, which involves the ability to see the entire picture.  Students must have strong analytical skills and be able to interpret the unknown information left behind by the writer. Such things as paper and pen type, use of language, tone, margins, and spacing of words and letters must be taken into consideration when analyzing a letter. All the pieces of the puzzle must fit together. Students also learn how to locate and collect suspect samples without violating the Fourth Amendment and to properly gather examples from a suspect in custody. The class analyzes the Jon Benet ransom note in order to utilize a real-life situation, which gives their work practical meaning. In order to achieve the above objectives, a web site  was created  to simulate a real investigation. As a final project, the students are given a scenario and are asked to "process evidence" from the crime using the web site. All the relevant information is accessible from the site. The students work collaboratively, emulating the work of real investigators, and they develop mental habits that last a lifetime.

Standards addressed:  
Forensic Science integrates many different scientific disciplines as well as current MST processes and skills. These include but are not limited to generating, processing, and transferring information; interdisciplinary problem solving; analysis inquiry and design; and  the application of scientific concepts/theories to address real-life problems. This "investigation" reinforces these processes, standards, and goals.
Materials used:
Required materials include computers with Internet connection, an LCD projector, and a scanner for the teacher as well as a digital camera.

The students:
The class is comprised of both seniors and juniors, 80% and 20% respectively. They are mostly Regents students, many of whom take AP courses.  Forensic Science is an elective that for some students completes their science requirement. The course provides a way to teach many aspects of science in an alternative fashion. Regents Biology or Chemistry are prerequisites for this course. Depending on the student population, this program could be adapted for use with younger students. Students with lower cognitive skills might need more guidance.

Overall value:
In the past, The Case Of The Mystery Note has been done mostly in the classroom with some "investigation" throughout the school.  In an attempt to maintain consistency and focus, a web site was created. Copies of the suspect letter sent to the class, as well as mug shots of all 12 suspects and their writing samples are available to the student investigators. This helps to facilitate the collaborative aspect of the project. After spending three days in the computer lab as a class, students work on their own. Many students present their findings to the class through well-organized PowerPoint presentations utilizing actual documents from the website. They cite all similarities and differences in their evidence to expose the culprit. The response from the students has been terrific and there was a recent article in The Huguenot Herald (The New Rochelle High School newspaper) about the project.

This program requires more than three class periods. Three days are spent in the computer lab to help the students stay focused. Give the students a week to complete the project out of class. The students hand in a complete investigation packet at the end.  E-mail for more information.


About the teacher:
Scott Rubins has been teaching Forensic Science for five years. He attained his Master's degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. He has presented a session entitled "Teaching Forensic Science The High School Way" at the National Science Teachers Association National Convention and has received grants totaling over $3000. He is a member of the North Eastern Association of Forensic Scientists and the Dental Identification Team for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City,  where he has worked since September 11 with forensic dentists to identify victims of the World Trade Center disaster.


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