Mock Crime Scene Unit Gives Windham High Students Hands-on Learning and Career Exploration

Back with a bang, quite literally, Windham High School along with the Windham Police Department have expanded an exciting, hands-on learning unit giving juniors and seniors the chance to write police reports, interview witnesses, and collect evidence as part of a mock crime scene project.

The Mock Crime Scene Unit began in 2017 and has expanded into an inclusive community event that now includes many members of the school community and the Windham community. With a few years off after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there has been a lot of planning and coordinating going on behind the scenes to offer the Unit again this year as a much more robust experience for all involved – and it was a huge success!

This year, approximately 110 students got to take part in the Crime Scene Unit by playing one of the various roles of professionals who handle a crime scene in real life, depending on which class they were enrolled in this year. The Unit began this spring and led up to a “Crime Scene Day” which was held on the Windham High School campus on May 5th where the students got the opportunity to apply skills they have been learning in class at a mock crime scene staged by the Windham Police Department.

As part of the Unit, Windham Police Department’s Detective Sergeant Andrews came into WHS earlier this spring to do lessons with the English classes. Meanwhile the math and science classes were visited by the State Mobile Crime Lab, and Detective Gallant and Sergeant Burke from the Windham Police Department visited school as well to work with the math students in preparation of the May 5th Crime Scene Day.

When the big day finally arrived, students from math and science classes got the chance to work as evidence technicians to collect and analyze data. They collaborated with students from English classes who served as detectives to interview the witnesses and suspect and develop a theory of the crime, and students from the journalism class played the role of journalists who were on hand to write press releases and articles to inform the public.

“The purpose [of the Mock Crime Scene] is to have the students learn about forensic investigation and give them a real-life application for the skills that they’re learning in school,” said math teacher John Ziegler. Ziegler and colleague Adrianne Shetenhelm, an English teacher at WSH, originally came up with the idea and now work with a team of teachers plus WHS Director of Community Connections/ELO Coordinator Lorraine Glowczak to plan and coordinate the Crime Scene Unit. “We’re giving them a great example of when they’re going to have to use math [for example] in real life…with a real career-based application to it.”

In addition to learning about blood typing and lab work, students also got to study evidence types and how they are handled from crime scene to trial, they also learned about illegal drugs and evidence testing, as well as about the rights of people who are being accused of a crime. Students in the English and journalism classes focused on nuances of writing about crime, they studied unbiased writing, and learned about ethical writing as well. Students also got the chance to apply mathematical formulas they learned in class to collect additional evidence about the crime scene.

WHS Junior Victoria Lin said she learned many things due to the hands-on and experiential learning aspects of the Unit, including how to communicate between big groups of people and relying on the information from other student detectives through meetings and an organized digital log. “We had to work together to figure out what information was missing, what information was relevant, and what kinds of questions needed to be asked.”

“I enjoy solving the how, what, when, where and why,” said Lake Peterson, a WHS Junior. “We weren’t told anything about the crime scene, so we had to interview the witnesses and process all the information given to us the day of the event.”

Both Lin and Peterson agreed that the mock crime scene curriculum was a fun way to learn by working outside of the classroom and with friends. Other students who participated also agreed resoundingly that being outside the classroom and doing hands-on learning was so much more meaningful for them. They  were also thankful to learn about how important being a good witness can be, and showed an immense amount respect and empathy for the Windham Police Department and to law enforcement as a profession.

“This collaboration provides students with the opportunity to develop teamwork, problem-solving, and communication skills and real-world applications to the content skills they are learning in their courses,” said WHS Assistant Principal Vanessa Michaud. “I am so proud of the hard work and dedication our staff put into making this experience possible for our students. It is truly a great thing to see our students building relationships with each other, our staff, and our community partners.”

During the remainder of the Unit this spring, student detectives will be pulling together a presentation for the District Attorney with their theory of the crime.

“My biggest takeaway from this event is just how well-integrated into the school culture it has become over the years,” said Ziegler. “It started out five years ago as Adrianne and I came up with a crazy lesson idea over lunch at Panera Bread, and it has since grown into one of the fundamental parts of the Windham High School curriculum. Thanks to the collaboration of [follow educators] Nicole Densmore, Dan Wirtz, Chelsea Scott, Tammy Lorenzatti, Lorraine Glowczak, and the officers of the Windham Police Department, this is now a project that has a life of its own.”