By Fran Memberg
“Ripped from the headlines” is entertainment-business jargon for art imitating life. John Palmer, a teacher at The Epstein School, has given the idea a twist: in his new science course, schoolwork is being ripped from TV entertainment.
He has developed an enrichment course for middle school students based on the popular CBS-TV crime-busting CSI series. Students in Palmer’s class do what the actors on CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION (Las Vegas), CSI: NY and CSI: Miami do. They use science to follow the evidence and solve crimes.
Palmer designed the CSI course to help students hone critical thinking skills.
“Today, with computer chips, science is almost magical,” Palmer said. “Press a button and something happens. People should have some basic understanding of how things work. (We have to) make a scientific way of thinking more accessible. CSI (uses) science to solve a mystery.”
Students in his class determine who committed the crime, how it was committed, what evidence supports the investigators’ opinion and how to defend that opinion. The final day of the course, student teams present their conclusions, showing supporting evidence, and defend them. Much like the rules of the board game Clue, each team will present evidence for and against the four suspects. After all evidence is defended, the class will vote on who committed the crime and how. Palmer said he designed the curriculum with no one certain correct answer.
Unlike the TV detectives, the 12 seventh graders taking the eight-week class don’t use high-tech equipment. Instead, Palmer’s students gather evidence by studying the scene of a fictional crime, taking notes and photographs, using a microscope to identify fibers and super glue to analyze fingerprints. Scientific thinking comes into play as students analyze timelines, evidence and alibis.
“Today I was able to learn some really cool things like how to get fingerprints off of the evidence using super glue,” said class member Isabella Zitron, a fan of the CSI TV show.
Palmer, a native of New Zealand, began using computers for research in the 1970s, when he was studying organic chemistry. He planned to be a teacher, but said he “wandered into business” until the mid-1990s. He lived in Atlanta for a while.
He returned to New Zealand, where he took advantage of a re-training program for people who want to teach. After teaching high school science in New Zealand, he returned to Atlanta when he married. He’s in his second year teaching fifth- and sixth-grade science at Epstein.
CSI is one offering of the Middle School Odysseys enrichment academies at Epstein, a Jewish day school in Sandy Springs that also offers early childhood and elementary programs. Middle school students select four Odyssey classes per year, choosing from arts, technology, math/science and humanities categories. The classes are not graded.
CSI student Talia Katz says she may have found her career goal in crime-solving class.
“It is interesting to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together and try to solve the crime,” she said. “Being in CSI lets me see what it would actually be like to have this kind of job and help me decide if I would like to do it in the future.”