Young sleuths try to unravel museum crime scene

Feb. 11, 2013 @ 06:05 PM

Dozens of pint-sized investigators were literally hands-on last week as they worked to solve a major “crime” at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

It was a make-believe break-in and theft, but the skills the youngsters learned were real.

Mastering the finer points of fingerprint dusting was first on the agenda, as the kids loved getting their hands dirty for a good cause.

“Someone has broken into our lab and messed up all our stuff!” said Anna Engelke, the museum’s lab educator. “I need you guys to try to solve this mystery.”

As part of the museum’s Forensic February, the young detectives worked in earnest, using magnetic powder to dust for prints and match them to one of three “suspects.”

“This is about collecting clues and analyzing them to figure out what we can learn about whodunit,” Engelke said.

As the kids dusted for prints and looked through a magnifying glass, it became clear that no two prints are the same, even with identical twins.

They used vegetable oil – similar to the natural skin oil people leave when they touch something – to make a finger impression on paper, then used a brush to dust for prints.

At an adjacent shoeprint station, children were busy making prints of their own shoes, using a solution of baking soda and water on chemically sensitive paper.

“Wow!” one child said as the pattern of his sole turned bright red.

In the end, the kids posted evidence against the three prime suspects on a bulletin board and appeared satisfied they had built a strong case.

Durham resident Greg Quintano brought his 3-year-old granddaughter, Adelina Smith, to the experiments, and said she loved it.

“It was fun!” Adelina said after completing the shoeprints.

“She had a good time, especially when she did her own shoe,” Quintano said. “She thought that was really great.”

Students from Salisbury Academy in Rowan County were also crime-scene investigators for the day.

“The experiments were exciting,” 11-year-old Nick Snipes said. “There was, like, new stuff that I had never seen before.”

Nick thought the shoe printing was most interesting, “because you put this stuff on your shoe and it shows up on paper.”

Ronni Lilly, 9, said her favorite part was smearing vegetable oil on her hand to make fingerprints. “It was really hard to stop doing it,” she said with a grin.

Nine-year-old Will Fowler liked seeing how everyone has different fingerprints.

“When you first look at it, it seems like everybody’s is the same,” he said. “But when you put it on paper, it’s very different.”

Will said he’s leaning toward a career as a police officer, “because I like keeping people safe.”

For the rest of this month, the museum is offering activities to help solve crimes using the same forensic tools as real investigators. This week, visitors can analyze animal hair under a microscope, and do a dye test to see which fiber a suspect wore.

Visitors will also experiment with chromatography (separating mixtures), examine notes left at crime scenes and learn about handwriting analysis.

The events, free with museum admission, are offered Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

For more information, visit the museum’s website at or call 919-220-5429.