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Students Learn How to Solve a Forensic Mystery in 'A Grizzly Discovery'

by Nicole Webster -- Sep 11, 2014
A woman wearing glasses and blue gloves holds up two human skulls. Teenage students watch in the background.

Nicole Webster is the School Programs Coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She develops, evaluates, and facilitates...

Students discuss how to analyze human bones during the "Forensic Mysteries - A Grizzly Discovery" school program in  Q?rius. Smithsonian photo NHB2013-02793 by James Di Loreto.
Students discuss how to analyze human bones during the "Forensic Mysteries - A Grizzly Discovery" school program in Q?rius. Smithsonian photo NHB2013-02793 by James Di Loreto.

A group of hikers stumbles across a human skull in the woods of West Virginia. There was a report of a missing 65-year-old woman from a nearby town – could this be her skull? To find out, the bones are sent to the forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for analysis and identification. The experts solved the mystery, and now your students can learn forensic techniques and see if they can reach the same conclusions by participating in the “Forensic Mysteries: A Grizzly Discovery” school program in the Q?rius science learning center.  

I am a Q?rius Educator and have been leading students through the case for the past five school years. Our staff-led Forensic Mysteries school programs are designed for Grades 6-12 and structured to immerse students in the work of forensic anthropologists, by allowing them to examine real human bones using the scientific tools and the techniques of museum scientists Dr. Doug Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide. Teachers have told us, “This type of guided inquiry makes science come alive” and “the students are able see the real live evidence of what we talk about in the classroom.”

An Investigation Broken Into Several Steps
In “A Grizzly Discovery,” we start by discussing what a forensic anthropologist can, and cannot, determine from skeletal remains. Then students prep for their investigation by donning gloves and discussing how to properly handle the specimens. In order to solve the case, students work together in small groups as they rotate through six stations: Sex, Stature, Pathology, Age, Scientific Context, and Site Context.

Students examine bone changes at the pathology station. Smithsonian photo NHB2013-02772 by James Di Loreto.At the first station, participants analyze the mystery person’s pelvis, which is the best bone in the body to determine sex. Using the provided reference collections, students compare male and female pelvises. Advanced students also learn about the differences between male and female skulls. After completing the station, one student remarked, “Who knew you could figure out a person’s sex just by looking at their bones?!”

At the Stature station participants learn how to use an osteometric board to measure bones. Using the mystery person’s long bones, the bones of the arm or legs, students take measurements and learn how to do conversions to determine the individual’s height.  

The Pathology station teaches students about bone changes that occur during life (antemortem), at the time of death (perimortem), and after death (postmortem).  An injured bone found at the scene could be a helpful clue to unravel the case, but students first have to determine when the injury occurred. To determine the age at death, students will use another forensic anthropology tool: X-rays. There are many ways to tell an individual’s age from the skeleton, but during this investigation the students focus on teeth. Students will have both the individual’s cranium and an X-ray of their mandible. Using eruption charts, models, and reference mandibles, students estimate an age range for the mystery person.

Human or non-human? It’s not as easy as you would assume. At the Scientific Context station, participants examine bones found at the site to determine if they came from the mystery person or an animal. If you’d like to try for yourself, click here to learn about a different example that was brought to our forensic anthropologists.

Q?rius Educator Nicole Webster helps students at the Science Context station. Photo courtesy of Julia Renburg, Battlefield High School.The final station is Site Context, where participants identify a shell casing that was found at the scene. When it comes to ballistics, most groups assume murder and CSI TV-show scenarios, but we guide students to make conclusions based just on the available evidence.

Finally, the students work within their groups to form a conclusion based on the evidence and data that they have collected. The program wrap-up is always an exciting time with groups vying to present their theories. Other groups can add to or refute the presented findings, before the Museum educator reveals the forensic anthropologist’s conclusions to the class. One student remarked, “Putting together all of the pieces of evidence is hard, but fun.”

“Forensic Mysteries - A Grizzly Discovery” is just one of six hour-long, staff-led programs we offer in Q?rius. All Q?rius school programs are designed for grades 6 through 12 and aligned to standards. Explore all of our offerings and register your group today!

Program Details: "Forensic Mysteries – A Grizzly Discovery" is a free, staff-led school program created for Grades 6-12. It is designed to keep students on task for 60 minutes. Subject areas: Anthropology, Forensic Science.

How to Register: We offer onsite school programs Monday through Friday. To register, go to the school program registration page, choose your date and time, click the "Sign Up" button, and on the registration form select the " Forensic Mysteries – A Grizzly Discovery " program.

Categories: School Programs
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