CMS sixth graders use science to solve a crime
Four girls wearing googles and smiling at camera


Someone kidnapped the Colonial Middle School (CMS) Patriot mascot, and it was up to the school’s sixth graders to use science to figure out who did it. In their annual visit to CMS, a faculty member from Ursinus College led the young crime solvers through a chromatography lesson as part of a program called Science In Motion.

“They’re all so excited,” Erin Benfer, an adjunct professor from Ursinus, said about the students in CMS. “I’m something just new and different from their daily routines. They’re always really happy, and we have a lot of fun.”

The sixth graders first took an ink sample from a ransom note and then compared it to ink samples from the pens of six suspects using chromatography. In chromatography, scientists split a mixture into its different components by putting it in another substance that causes the ingredients in the first mixture to "travel" at different rates. When the sixth graders put the ink samples in ethanol, the black dots each developed unique colorful trails that showed the differences in the inks.

“My favorite part is the color blends. They’re pretty cool,” said CMS sixth grader Jake Schwartz. “I didn’t think they’d be that colorful.”

Boy wearing googles sitting at table with small jar


For most of the teams, the color pattern from the ink used in the ransom note clearly matched the pattern from the pen of the suspect named Clay Potter.

“I was surprised it actually worked, because it’s a hard thing to believe that you can figure out who wrote a note from a bunch of pens that all look exactly the same,” said CMS sixth grader Abby Nye. “But when you look at the results, they’re all so different. It’s really crazy.”

Connecting science to real world scenarios parallels what the students do in class.

“It’s exciting for me, because the students are able to apply techniques that we learned in the classroom to a real life scenario,” said CMS Science Teacher Tina Stoffel. “They see the results and can identify who the suspect is based on the evidence that they collected themselves.”

Science In Motion is an initiative created and run by a dozen colleges across the state that brings scientists and advanced laboratory equipment into Pennsylvania schools.