For a few hours last fall, families at Sand Lake Elementary in Orlando, Fla., became crime scene investigators. They studied shoeprints, inspected candy spilled at a crime scene, and determined whether suspects’ alibis checked out. As families tried to figure out which of five teachers stole school trophies, they used critical thinking skills and a series of lab experiments to solve the crime. The Sand Lake PTA’s creative approach to a science night earned it the award for Outstanding Family Event in PTO Today’s 2013 Parent Group of the Year search.

Since all families at the 435-student, K-5 school were invited to attend the Mystery Science Night, the scientific concepts were kept to a broad level of understanding, says Paula Whitty, vice president in charge of events: “The goal was for the families to explore scientific method by conducting experiments, making observations, recording information, and predicting an outcome.”

After finding powder on the suspects’ shoes, the detectives observed how it reacted to water and vinegar. They reconstructed shredded paper to read a secret message. They also ran tests on the candy, which crackled, bubbled, and exploded in the lab.

When attendees had completed all the labs, they gathered in the cafeteria to name their top suspect. As it turned out, none of the teachers were guilty of any wrongdoing. One of the teachers explained that she borrowed the trophies so she could copy the design for a necklace. The teacher apologized, and the principal thanked her for coming forward and being honest. After that, the trophies were returned to the trophy case and locked up.

The PTA has held similar events in recent years, with families solving different crimes. The PTA came up with the idea for Mystery Science Night after seeing a presentation by a local high school science teacher, who later consulted with the group.

The group decided to make Mystery Science Night a priority in the 2012-13 school year as a result of the School Advisory Council’s improvement plan, which suggested an evening science program to enhance the school’s science curriculum. By using scientific concepts to solve a mystery at their own school, students could see how information in their science books could be used in real life.

Although this wasn’t the PTA’s first Mystery Science Night, it took a lot of work to craft a storyline that would be compelling to students. “That was one of the hardest parts, fitting the mystery storyline together with the lab experiments,” Whitty says.

The CSI approach was clearly appealing to school families. Almost 250 people participated in Mystery Science Night, accounting for 34 percent of the student body. About 60 volunteers helped run the event, including members of a local high school student service club.

What the judges loved: Mystery Science Night takes a creative approach to engaging families in science. Giving kids a puzzle to solve creates a reason for them to pay extra close attention, and it shows science being used in a practical way.

Cool fact: Attendees had to decide whether each suspect’s alibi was believable or not. One teacher’s claim: He was at a One Direction concert!

Interested in running your own science event? Our free Family Science Night kit has everything you need to run a great event, including planning tips, invitation flyers, and lots of science experiments!