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A Crime Against Plants

A Botanical Crime Scene Investigation:
Exploring how we can know about
events of the past

By Michael Kimmel, ENSI '91



Basic Processes

We now have a textbook for students on the nature of science. It's intended to replace, or supplement, the inadequate first chapter of your text. It's designed to coordinate and help sequence several of the nature of science (NOS) lessons on the ENSI site. It is targeted to students in any science class, grades 7-10 (or beyond). It helps to satisfy virtually all the new NOS standards in NGSS and Common Core. If you've used any of ENSI's NOS lessons, you already know how powerful they are. This new book addresses most of the common misconceptions about NOS. It also provides information about the differences between good science, poor science, and pseudoscience. It offers clues for recognizing those differences, and opportunities to practice using those clues. "What's this magic book I've been waiting for all my life?" It's called Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science. "Tell me more - like where can I see this book?" Say no more. It's available as an eBook, published with Smashwords. Click Here to get more information and a link to sample (and purchase) the new eBook Science Surprises.


Crime scene investigations serve as excellent examples of how science can explain past events by careful observation and analysis of present evidence. This lesson provides a novel opportunity for students to examine the evidence of a puzzling phenomenon involving a small tree, and with a little research, arrive at a reasonable explanation of what happened. Helps to fulfill the National Science Standards for the History and Nature of Science and specific content goals in the Life Science and Earth/Space Science standards.


 Evidence in the present can reveal events of the past (historical science)


1. Science deals only with natural patterns and mechanisms.
2. Scientific knowledge is uncertain, tentative and subject to revision.


   Students will....

1. recognize that historical science is just as valid as experimental science
2. recognize examples of historical science vis a vis experimental science
3. recognize that science is limited to natural explanations of natural phenomena
4. recognize that alternative conclusions (explanations) can apply, and favored conclusions can change with new information, new techniques, and/or new interpretations.


PDF Copies of:
Student Handouts (see below)
Teacher Information (available upon request)
Copy of this lesson


 One 45-minute period


"Case Report of a Botanical Crime Scene," with the assigned task and suggested URLs
Six photographs showing evidence from the crime scene (provide copies of all six photos to each team).




Because this lesson provides an excellent opportunity to understand important elements of the Nature of Science , be sure to read our General Background Information, with our Rationale and our Approach, and tips for Presenting the lessons for maximum effect and Dispelling some of the popular myths about science.

In any of the discussions expected with the class, select a few key items (important concepts) that lend themselves to interpretation, and introduce class to the Think-Pair-Share (TPS) routine dealing with those items. This is how "Active Learning" is done.

 This lesson can be offered in the context of your introductory unit on the nature of science. The suggested websites can provide the botanical background to analyze the evidence. In fact, this scenario could be used as an opening experience for your students, to which subsequent experiences in class can refer. The legitimate process of science that this lesson exemplifies provides an important counterpoint to the usual "Scientific Method" of experimental science, often the only scientific process students encounter. The "historical process" of science is critical to understanding how science works in several fields, including astronomy, paleontology, evolutionary biology, and geology.

This lesson could also be used as an application experience following class work on plant structures and plant growth, effectively integrating a valuable process of science with its content.

Prepare enough copies of the Case Report and photographs so that each team of 2-4 will have a set. If computer access is not available, provide printouts of pertinent material on the suggested websites. Alternatively, if at least one person on each team has access to a computer (home, library), that person can be the resource person who can gather the information and report back to the team with copies of that evidence.



 Student teams are to read the Case Report, study the photos, discuss and plan their strategy for fulfilling the assigned task. Then they must assign the working tasks to each team member.

Each team compiles and writes its report. Probably the most valuable follow- up would be to have a representative from each team share the team's concise conclusions with the class. List the conclusions on the board in a brief fashion as presented. When all conclusions are in, engage the class in assessing those conclusions. Encourage them to ask selected teams to explain how they arrived at particular elements of their conclusions, and to offer alternative explanations, focusing on their relative strengths and weaknesses. Be sure that students critique the explanations or the process, not the team or its members.

For example of a reasonable Timeline, and possible causes of the death of the victim, contact the webmaster with your school email address and/or clear evidence of your position as a teacher.


1. Given examples of various studies, students can recognize which are examples of historical science, and which are examples of experimental science.
2. Given examples of explanations for this botanical crime scene, students can distinguish which are inappropriate for science (invoke supernatural forces), pseudoscience (claim supernatural forces as being scientific), poorly done science (fail to account for all the data), based on historical analysis, or based on experimental analysis.
3. If more than one equally viable explanation is offered, indicate what information would be needed to resolve the dispute.
4. What assumptions are made about the data (information and pictures) and the validity of the resources?



Doing another "Crime Scene" lesson (or more) would reinforce much of the concepts from this lesson.

Try a new "forensic" style lesson on this site: "Mystery of the Missing Marks" that takes students on a problem-solving quest to test the hypothesis that our long #2 chromosome was formed from the fusion of two shorter chromosomes found in chimps today. Students search for the molecular fossils (telomere DNA) in the middle of their #2 chromosome.


 Look into the new standards-based curriculum units and lessons on forensic science for middle and high school students, developed and made available FREE by NSTA and Court TV: "Forensics in the Classroom". Lessons are appropriate for biology, chemistry and physics classes. (Posted 22 October 2003).

OTHER RESOURCES (posted January, 2016):
Search: "crime scene investigations for classroom"
Or search for "forensic science for classroom"
Go to Reddy's Forensic Page
Or Nancy Clark's Forensic Page


Some of the ideas in this lesson may have been adapted from earlier, unacknowledged sources without our knowledge. If the reader believes this to be the case, please let us know, and appropriate corrections will be made. Thanks.

 1. Original Source: This lesson was created and developed in 2004 by Michael Kimmel, ENSI '91, Ohio OBTA for 2001, currently Program Director for the Master of Arts in Integrated Science for Teachers at John Carroll University in University Heights, OH. Email: mkimmel@jcu.edu.

2. Modified by: Lesson introduced and adapted to the ENSI format by Larry Flammer, July 2005.

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