Students Study Ransom Note to Solve Mystery

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Provided by Prince William County Schools (PWCS)

This story features a learning activity that took place prior to school closures due to COVID-19.

The hunt was on at Marumsco Hills Elementary School. Susan Johannes’s fifth-grade class tried to solve a mystery by determining who wrote the ransom note. In the criminal’s haste to leave, they left an important clue by spilling water on the note, causing the ink to separate into specific color patterns.

Earlier this year, PWCS featured a story on an earthquake experiment that Johannes did with her students. The students were thrilled about having an article written about them. They made Johannes promise to share their latest experiment.

This time, Johannes set up a chromatography (used in the forensic field) activity as a crime scene using black markers from four teachers and administrators. The point of the activity was for the students to see whether the color black was a mixture or solution.

Students used evidence folders and worked in groups of four to perform chromatography on each marker. Once they observed how each marker’s black color separated into various color patterns, the student groups compared the results to the ransom note. Based on the way the ink separated, they were able to identify which teacher or administrator was the guilty party. Along the way, they discovered that black ink is made of several different colors and is classified as a mixture.

“This was fun – I get how filters can help separate things in a mixture – it makes sense to me,” said one student.

Johannes purposefully integrates math into her science activities and relates them to real life. She also creates her experiments so they foster conversation and allow each student, no matter their learning level, to actively participate, learn, and have fun.


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