At Sand Lake Elementary in Orlando, Fla., Halloween time is a lot more exciting than just costumes and candy. Students arrive on a Monday morning to find yellow crime-scene tape roping off an area of suspicious activity at the school. Something has been stolen, and it’s up to the kids to discover the culprit.

That’s the scene each year in the week leading up to Mystery Science Night. Over the weekend, a team of teachers stage a petty crime and set up CSI-like labs for children to conduct experiments on the evidence left behind, such as fingerprints, mysterious substances, and tread marks.

Each day during that next week, a new suspect is announced along with a possible reason for the crime. The suspect’s photo is posted behind jailhouse stripes, and the kids begin to evaluate the evidence in preplanned labs.

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Mystery Science Night began two years ago after PTA executive committee members attended a presentation by Nancy Bohn, a high school science teacher from nearby Osceola County. “We were so impressed with her method of teaching science that we invited her to consult with our group,” says MSN coordinator Katherine Caravello.

Last year, students discovered that several framed pictures had been taken from the front hallway. The school began to buzz: Why was there broken glass at the scene? What was up with the tire tracks left on the walkway?

They spent a day examining fingerprints left on glass from a broken frame. “We duplicated fingerprints from our suspects on transparencies and had kids compare them to those left at the scene,” Caravello explains. After another suspect was announced, they looked at a blood sample left on the glass and identified blood types.

Lab by lab, the kids began to eliminate suspects. Students examined alibis by comparing activities that took place on the day of the crime, such as Little League games and exercise classes, to locations where the suspects had been seen; advertisements and public schedules had been collected beforehand to provide the necessary information. They also compared the tire tracks with tire imprints from the makes and models of the suspects’ cars.

By the end of the week of labs and data collection, all of the evidence had been examined. Parents were invited to help solve the crime with their children during an evening session.

After families gathered in the cafeteria to learn about the crime, they rotated among four labs, confirming their suspicions about who stole the photos. When they joined up again, the kids were asked who did it. “It was Ms. Lyons!” they shouted in unison. The guilty 4th grade teacher came forward, holding the snatched photos, to explain that she was only trying to recruit players for her softball team. “I broke one of the frames, and I didn’t have a chance to replace it,” she said. “It was all a misunderstanding!”

More than half the student body has participated in the event, performing science labs and having a great time. “The best part...is watching families do real science together to solve a mystery,” Caravello says. “The kids don’t even realize that they’re learning as they go!”

The Group
Sand Lake Elementary PTA, Orlando, Fla.

School size: 500 students, grades K-5
Annual budget: $52,491
Fundraisers: Selling food products through Main Street Marketing; PTA membership dues, at three levels ranging from $5 to $100.
Mission statement: The PTA motto is “Every child, one voice.” We strive to advocate on behalf of every child in our school.

Mystery Science Night
Families solve a crime at school after a week of learning labs by students

Evidence of fun: Because Mystery Science Night takes place early in the year and parents have just purchased school supplies, it is not a fundraiser. The event costs about $500 in lab supplies; the first year, the PTA also paid a $250 consulting fee to develop the program. “We sold pizza and soda the first year to raise some funds, but we dropped it the second year,” Caravello says. “Our parents were disappointed, so we’ll probably reinstate it.”

Whodunit? Any school staff member—teachers, administrators, or support staff—could be a suspect. A total of 32 parent volunteers run the event, with a core team of two or three working with teachers to coordinate lab and story development.

Crimes that work: When deciding on a crime, make sure that the stolen item is meaningful to students—and always explain that the crime was unintentional so children don’t think that a person who does bad things is working at the school. This is especially important for younger kids like kindergartners, who tend to take things very literally. Teachers always explain up-front that it’s only a game.

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!