CLEMSON — Voldemort, The Joker, Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the West were just a few of the suspects in a simulated murder investigation at a recent summer science camp for fifth- through seventh-graders held on the campus of Clemson University.

Students at the CSI summer camp decode secret messages.

Students at the CSI summer camp decode secret messages.
Image Credit: Katherine Freeman / Clemson University

The July 11-14 camp, led by instructors at the Clemson University Life Sciences Outreach Center (CULSOC) in Jordan Hall, was intended to spark interest in science for kids who might otherwise regard the subject as strictly lab coats and lectures.

On July 11, a group of 15 students from around the Upstate and Georgia began their investigation when they found a secret message written in “invisible ink,” or a dried mixture of baking soda and water, on a sheet of paper. When the paper was painted with concentrated grape juice, the message was revealed due to an acid-base reaction. The students were allowed to make their own secret messages to see how the chemical reaction works.

From there, the “victim” was identified by analyzing the loops, whorls and arches of fingerprints found at the crime scene.

“After the students discovered who the victim was, they analyzed their own fingerprints,” said Katherine Freeman, a recent Clemson graduate-turned-instructor for CULSOC. “We then noticed that there were no marks on the ‘body,’ so we concluded that our victim died from poisoning. This led us toward analyzing the ‘poisons’ that the crime scene technicians believe killed the victim.”

Microscopic hair analysis helped the students identify the "killer."

Microscopic hair analysis helped the students identify the “killer.”
Image Credit: Katherine Freeman / Clemson University

Analyzing the poisons — mockups of arsenic, cyanide, hemlock, ricin and belladonna made from harmless household ingredients — introduced the students to the field of forensic toxicology. The study of dental evidence, called forensic odontology, was also touched on when the students examined teeth marks found on a piece of gum at the crime scene.

The investigation continued through microscopic hair analysis, blood-typing and DNA profiling, with more suspects being eliminated after each activity. At the end of the camp, the students had solved the investigation, identified the killer and been provided a rundown on the careers that exist in forensics.

Freeman said a camp like this is a delight for curious young children.

“Ultimately, I think one of the biggest things students take away from the camps is the realization that science is fun. A lot of people, at least from my experience, think science is boring because they’re usually in classrooms, being taught by textbooks, not doing a lot of hands-on activities. This camp brings in more hands-on work and allows them to experience science in a new light,” Freeman said. “And we also bring in a lot of different disciplines into our camps, like chemistry, biology, genetics and biochemistry.”

CULSOC director Victoria Corbin has only positive things to say about her staff.

“Freeman and our two interns do a great job with the camps. They love kids and have developed a great science adventure for them to experience,” said Corbin. “There is always a fun buzz of excitement and discovery in the room.”

Harmless household ingredients served as poisons for the camp's forensic investigation.

Harmless household ingredients served as poisons for the camp’s forensic investigation.
Image Credit: Katherine Freeman / Clemson University

The CSI camp is one of three camps offered this summer through CULSOC, with others focusing on engineering, design and biotechnology. The remaining camps of summer 2017 will welcome teachers from the around the state for a continuing education course, funded by Roper Mountain Science Center and students from the Toho Gakuen Girls’ School in Tokyo, Japan for a pre-collegiate experience through Clemson’s Summer Scholars program.

For Freeman, the best part of teaching the summer camps is watching how the students respond to the marvels of science.

“I get joy out of seeing how much fun the students have — that’s great. The students get to experience science a little more and have fun with it,” Freeman said. “I’ve also learned so much more by teaching because once you teach something it really solidifies everything you know and you get to explore new avenues and learn new things that you wouldn’t otherwise dive deep into.”

The Clemson University Life Science Outreach Center’s summer camps are offered every summer for fifth- through 12th-graders. While summer 2017 registration is closed, interested parents or students can check back on the center’s website later in the year for the summer 2018 schedule or contact Corbin for more information.