February 2014



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Wolsey-Wessington students spend week solving mock crimes

“Life doesn’t come at you in 50-minute increments of math, language arts and science,” says Dan Guericke, director of the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative.

That’s the reasoning behind the South Dakota Innovation Lab, a problem-based learning model Guericke helped establish about four years ago. The SDIL is a partnership of the Mid-Central Educational Coop, Sanford Research and the PAST Foundation. The PAST Foundation is a nonprofit group based in Ohio that helps schools and communities adopt a transdisciplinary approach to learning, with a strong focus on STEM.

Wolsey-Wessington students recently spent a week solving mock crimes, as part of Forensics in the Classroom, a bridge program created by the PAST Foundation. Bridge programs like this one help students transition from the traditional classroom setting to problem-based learning. Wolsey-Wessington is planning to become a full-time SDIL school in 2014-15.

Students in grades 6-12 spent the first part of the week learning about fingerprinting, trace evidence, anthropology and other skills required to solve crimes. Employees of the PAST Foundation and Sanford Research helped deliver lectures and facilitate lab activities.

That Thursday, the students were put into groups and assigned to one of several mock crime scenes to put their new skills to work. At first glance, things looked a bit chaotic with students milling in the hallways, in and out of classrooms, but closer inspection revealed they were methodically documenting and mapping every detail. Everyone had a specific role to play from taking pictures to dusting for fingerprints and analyzing handwriting.

Students had until 2 p.m. to finish processing crime scenes. From 2-3:45 p.m., they used all the information they had gathered to put together the story of the crime they were investigating.

On Friday, students took their cases to “court,” with each student offering testimony in his or her area of expertise.

Elementary students weren’t left out of the crime solving fun, either. Early in the week, they discovered $1 million ransom notes for their kidnapped classroom stuffed animals. They learned about many of the same topics as the older students, and by the end of the week, they too, had determined the culprits.

“We fully realize almost every teacher does projects,” Guericke says. “They’re usually viewed as some sort of add-on to a curriculum. We’re trying to flip that whole paradigm, so the projects are the curriculum. And if you need to, if you can’t address a standard through the problem-solving process, then you may have to go back to the textbook as an add-on.”

This week of forensics wasn’t Wolsey-Wessington’s first foray into problem-based learning. Last fall, the high school math, science and English teachers collaborated to lead students in a project to determine where Wolsey’s new fire hall should be located.

Students mapped potential sites, studied environmental impact, determined how much land is needed and learned the protocol for getting approval from city officials.

With help from the fire department, students also studied Wolsey’s need for ambulance service by staging a mock car accident to calculate emergency response time.

“It’s finding real-world problems and issues that are of interest to the kids, that get them motivated to learn and to explore and take education in a different direction,” says Wolsey-Wessington Superintendent James Cutshaw. “It’s more exciting than just trying to read out of a textbook something that maybe doesn’t apply to you or you can’t relate to.”

“Instructors who view themselves as the source of answers are fast becoming outdated,” Guericke says. “We have to teach students how to evaluate those answers, use those answers, apply those answers.”

Click here for more information about the South Dakota Innovation Lab.

Former teacher Mari Biehl talks about her experience with problem-based learning.