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Solve a Mystery with Science

What does a scientist do when faced with a mystery ingredient that could be the key to solving a crime or accident? Understanding how certain chemicals react in the presence of other chemicals can be the key to confirming the identity of a substance. Students get a hands-on look at chemical reactions using a color test as they work to solve a hypothetical medical mystery in the Crime Scene Chemistry project.

Crime Scene Chemistry project and kit

The premise of the Crime Scene Chemistry: Determine the Identity of an Unknown Chemical Substance science project is a mystery that brings to mind mystery dinners, parties at which people gather together in what amounts to a real-world game of Clue.

The Crime Scene Chemistry project centers around a medical mystery: an elderly lady arrives at the hospital with health complaints and a tale of an afternoon spent baking and sampling cookies. Listening to her story, and taking into account her symptoms, the doctor suspects maybe she got her ingredients mixed up. If correct, her condition can be explained as an accident and treated appropriately (and steps can be taken to help prevent the same accident recurring). But if the doctor is wrong, something else may be going on to cause her symptoms. The doctor needs to get the diagnosis right in order to treat the patient. Confirming or ruling out suspicion over the ingredients is an important first step, and chemistry holds the key to helping test the doctor's theory about what might have happened.

Getting to the bottom of the lady's problem involves evaluating possible causes for her symptoms, listening to the details of her story, brainstorming what may have happened or what may be going on, and then, with a hypothesis in place, some hands-on science-based detective work is needed. The Crime Scene Chemistry science project puts students in the role of medical detective as they test known substances (like salt, sugar, and aspirin) against three substances that are presumed to be certain things but might not be. The experiment guides them in testing the known and unknown substances to look for certain chemical reactions that can help confirm the identity of each unknown substance. Is the salt from the lady's house really salt? Is the sugar really sugar? Did she accidentally grab aspirin instead of one of the ingredients she used when making the cookies?

Adding Intrigue

The story that goes along with this project isn't sinister. There is no suggestion that the possible problem was anything other than an accident. But similar kinds of problems that are not accidental do occur in the real world. Depending on the students doing the project, a different story of intrigue could easily be created to go along with the chemistry investigation. Maybe the problem with the ingredients isn't just an accident! If you tweak the scenario to make it really grab the audience, be careful to make sure the storyline is still appropriate for the age of the students, but this could be a lot of fun for a group activity at home or a collaborative project at school. Students will feel like real chemists and detectives as they try and puzzle through the scenario, brainstorm from the facts presented, and then learn to use a real chemistry procedure to help better understand the substances found at the scene of the crime.

A convenient science kit with the materials for this project is available.

A Career in STEM

Students that enjoy the Crime Scene Chemistry project or like mysteries may enjoy learning more about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers like these:

Other Crime Scene Science Projects

Students who enjoy doing the Crime Scene Chemistry project may also enjoy the following related science project ideas:

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