Students solve crime in name of science

GILLETTE — When a group of elementary school kids showed up at the Gillette College Pronghorn Center on Thursday afternoon, they thought they were going to be doing a bunch of enrichment activities relating to astronomy.

But there was one small problem, one that could lead to their day getting canceled.

Troy Nellermoe, a science teacher at Campbell County High School, greeted the kids as officers from the Gillette Police Department were milling around.

The Pronghorn Center was an active crime scene, Nellermoe told the kids. The college had rented the building out to a candy company, and someone got wind of that, broke into the building through the back door and stole a bag of candy.

They couldn’t have children on an active crime scene getting in the way of the investigators, Nellermoe said, and he suggested rescheduling for a later date.

“I’m thinking some time in April 2023,” he said.

But after talking with police officers for a few seconds, Nellermoe was able to convince them to let the third-graders try their hand at the investigation.

“You guys want to turn this into some science?” he asked the kids, to which he received an enthusiastic “yes” from the crowd.

They spent the next two hours using deductive reasoning to find the candy thief, who turned out to be walking among them the whole time.

The science clubs at Campbell County and Thunder Basin high schools came together to put on Discovery Days at the Pronghorn Center. Discovery Days happens twice every school year, once in the fall and once in the spring.

About 200 kids from the Gifted and Talented Education program in 11 elementary schools participated in this year’s Discovery Days over the course of two days last week. It had a forensics theme, and the kids used science and deductive reasoning to solve the crime.

As the kids walked into the gym, they saw the different clues the perpetrator left behind. They were divided into groups and set off on solving the crime.

At one station, a chocolate bomb had gone off in the face of the criminal, leaving an outline of his or her head and arms. The kids had to measure the wingspan of the outline and use that measurement to estimate the perpetrator’s height. They then measured the heights and wingspans of teachers to see if any of them matched the profile.

Another station had a chocolate viscosity lab. The suspect left behind a trail of chocolate, and the kids had to test the consistency of different chocolates to see which one matched the time frame in which the suspect left the scene.

Other investigative measures included fingerprinting and DNA analysis, as well as using Play-Doh to get an imprint of footprints left at the scene.

Ainsley Hokanson, president of the CCHS Science Club, said that when she was a third-grader, forensics was the theme for her first Discovery Days, so she thought it would be fun to bring that back for the kids this year.

The most difficult part of the preparation process was figuring out how to create a crime that could be solved using deductive reasoning and the scientific method.

“Figuring out ways to eliminate the suspects was pretty tough, and putting together the whole story was a challenge,” Ainsley said.

“Don’t show me the crime scene, show me the suspects and I’ll make the reasoning at the end,” said Nellermoe, who also is the coach of the Campbell County High School science club.

By coming up with ways to teach the elementary school kids certain topics, the high school students are able to better understand those topics, and in turn Nellermoe is able to see what “gaps in knowledge” his students have.

Nellermoe said planning events like Discovery Days helps his students prepare for the real world.

“The best thing about this is, as we teach our science club kids, this is how you manage the world,” he said. “You reflect on what went wrong, you troubleshoot, you make it right the next time.”

Cooper Stevens, a CCHS junior, said it was “hectic,” but that compared to planning for the event, was tougher than actually putting it in practice.

“It was stressful, but it’s really rewarding to see it all come together,” Ainsley said.

The biggest takeaway Cooper got from it was that the show must go wrong. Things will always go wrong, and you just have to deal with it.

“Have enough time for yourself to make mistakes,” he said. “Give yourself extra time, because you are going to make mistakes.”

Nellermoe said the most rewarding part of the whole thing was seeing the kids engaging with the activities.

“There’s kids asking questions. That’s huge,” he said. “Kids asking questions, kids offering answers … I love seeing that. You never want a cold audience.”

Both Cooper and Ainsley participated in Discovery Days when they were younger, and they appreciated the opportunity to be on the giving end of things.

“It’s cool to be the one doing this for them,” Cooper said.

“That was like the highlight of my whole year,” Ainsley said. “It was so fun.”

She added that it was “definitely rewarding, especially with the younger kids, you can see the excitement on their faces.”

After close to two hours of investigation, the kids had narrowed the list of 12 suspects down to a final four. The investigation ended with a deep dive into the remaining suspects’ social media profiles to see if they had left any clues about where they were during the time of the break-in.

One picture posted by Dawn Tystad, a paraprofessional educator for CCHS, had a bag of candy in the background. At that point, the children’s suspicions were confirmed. Seeing that her time was up, Tystad tried to make a getaway, the bag of lollipops still in hand, but officers were able to apprehend and cuff her before she escaped, much to the joy of the students.

In a day full of the kids asking questions, one student asked Tystad what was perhaps the most important question of all.

“You’re a full-grown adult, why don’t you buy your own candy?”