Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Sad Situation of Sam Smiley: An Introduction To The Scientific Method

HSI (Historical Scene Investigation) is an interesting site that allows students to be investigators of historical events by examining primary and secondary documents and then coming up with their own conclusions. It doesn't seem to have been updated for years though. I first discovered in in 2007 and it has remained the same since then.

Still, there's a lot of good stuff on it. I've modified their investigations for a 5th grade study of the Boston Massacre and the Jamestown "starving time." My favorite investigation is Sam Smiley. It's meant to be an introduction to investigation skills needed to be a good historian, but I find it even more fitting to introduce the scientific method. The process that one undertakes whether or not she is a historian or scientist is essentially the same: Ask a question, do some background research, construct a hypothesis, test it against what is known, analysize the results, revise your hypothesis as new information comes into light, and eventually reach a conclusion.


The Sad Situation of Sam Smiley introduces these components to the students very well. Over the years I've made changes to the original investigation. I've taken away and added new witnesses, altered the storyline to keep it fresh for each grade, added video testimonies, and try to connect it with real places that the students will know.

This year I live in Kathmandu, and I walk to school. Here is my hook:

I was walking to work today and I found a group of policemen huddled around something by the side of the road. I went up to them and asked them what they were looking at. They let me in their circle, and there, lying in the road, was a body. I asked them what happened. They said they had just arrived and had no idea who this person was and what happened to him. I said perfect! I explained that I was teaching a science lesson in my 4th grade class today, and this would be a perfect connection with science- if only the police could give me the case, translate it from Nepali to English, and make enough photocopies for me. They said no problem.

So that’s what we are going to do. You’ve all been promoted to detectives. And like detectives we’ll use the scientific method to figure out what happened. 

At this point I have to ask you a very important question: Is this real? 

Of course not. So why are we doing this? Because finding out about how a fictional person died is really an interesting problem. But more importantly, what I want to teach you is the scientific process, particularly asking questions, doing background research, and making a hypothesis based on your astute observations, your reasoning, and strong problem solving methods.  

On the first day, all the students get is the contents of Sam's wallet. They have to answer three questions from receipts, ticket stubs, and ID cards:

1) Who is this guy?

2) How did he spend the last day of his life?

3) How did he die?


At the end of the first day, each investigative team has to come up with a hypothesis for how he dies. The next day, I begin to introduce witnesses. On the last day they get a map of where the body was found. By the end of the investigation, the students have formulated at least three hypotheses based on the evidence that they have at the time. At the end of the investigation, they get to choose to have a filmed press conference to present their findings (using a FLIP cam), write up a police report (using Google Docs), or making a police presentation (using Prezi).

Here is one Prezi that a 4th grade investigative team made this year:

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