Juneau police officer Kim Martin sniffed the wads of cotton impregnated with smells and compared it to a scent left at the scene of a jewelry theft.
"You want to play? I'm in charge of this crime scene," she said to a reporter.
Martin was more knowledgeable than most of the students and parents who tried to solve mock crimes from ancient Greece and Rome at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School last week. But she was just as impressed with the efforts of Alder House students to combine ancient history with forensic science.
"Oh my gosh, these kids did a good one," Martin said, who figured out which suspect had no business at the scene but left evidence of being there.
Sixth-grader Rose Stanley devised the crime scene with three other students. She and Brittany Lehnhart wrote the document from the patrician jewelry owner that set the scene and developed some suspects.
The crime scene included a table on a paper mosaic floor, a sandal, a wax tablet with ancient Greek letters, and a broken jewelry box with a fingerprint on it. Like the other crime scenes, it required crime-solvers to burn fibers to identify their type, make a pH test of a substance, and compare fingerprints or other clues.
"I learned how to do a lot of tests like pH tests and I learned how to construct them," Stanley said. "I learned it's not just one, two three. You have to take time to get the materials."
Stanley's mother, Natalee Rothaus, said she was impressed with the projects because they challenged students to really explain the subject and to use various resources.
Janet Valentour, a social studies and language arts teacher in Alder House, said housewide projects, of which there are two a year, are intended to build a community of learners.
"It gives us a common language throughout the house so we're seeing ourselves as a whole," Valentour said.
The projects also give students a reason to apply their knowledge so they see a purpose in learning it, she said.
This project combined organizational and social skills with science experiments and writing mock-ancient documents and contemporary instructions to crime-solvers.
"By the end of the project they had three or four drafts of each thing," said science teacher Collauna Dick. "It really taught them how to organize themselves, how to present material in a simple manner."
Eighth-grader Alexei Painter and three other students created the crime scene of a Roman slave-owner who drowned, apparently, in his fountain. At least a dummy with an Al Gore mask lay head first in the water, conveyed by blue paper.
"I like it a lot better to be able to use my hands and work in groups and write stuff on a piece of paper," Painter said. "In the real world you have to do stuff where you don't just answer questions of a piece of paper."
Dzantik'i Heeni students also do projects within one course. Last week Jamie Marks' seventh- and eighth-grade American history classes in Cedar House reenacted the trial of the British soldiers who killed five colonists in 1770 in what's commonly called the Boston Massacre.
The project was partly intended to show students that history is a narrative told in many voices, Marks said, wearing a rumpled black tricorner hat, white vest and socks pulled over his cuffs. The massacre also could be seen as troops killing rioters in self-defense.
Students were expected to study the trial's real testimony, memorize their roles and answer lawyers' questions without notes. Several adults served as a jury.
For homework, students summarized each day's testimony and said who was winning the case and what they would have done differently.
"It's really neat to see the students doing their stuff," said Dave Borg, a juror and father of a seventh-grade participant. Students learn history and how the courts work, he said.
His daughter, Marissa Borg, went on the Internet at home to learn more about the incident. "It's kind of expanded her learning because he's gotten them interested in it."
Valerie Rose, one of the prosecutors, jumped on a witness' testimony. One boy said he saw the crowd club a soldier to the ground. The soldier got up and fired his musket, he said. Rose questioned whether picking up a heavy musket and firing it could be called a reflex action.
"I've done mock trials before, in sixth grade, so I have a little experience doing this," Rose said afterward.
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