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PEOPLE detectives get to the bottom of mock crime

July 27, 2012 By Valeria Davis

UW-Madison Provost Paul M. DeLuca Jr. says he’s willing to do almost anything to help students learn.

Earlier this month, he proved it by remaining inert for nearly 45 minutes, head slumped face-down on a table with a suspicious plastic bag around his neck – murdered for the sake of learning.

Photo: "Crime" scene

Students in the PEOPLE program investigate the scene of the mock murder of Provost Paul M. DeLuca Jr. at his Bascom Hill office.

Photo: Andy Manis

As students from the PEOPLE program Crime Scenes Investigation workshop filed through his office and cell-phone photographed the crime-taped scene, UW–Madison police Detective Anthony Curtis recommended details to note and advised the high school students to observe carefully before Deluca was removed, er, resumed his workday and saved the coroner a trip.

It’s been happening every year for more than a decade – top UW–Madison administrators from schools and colleges across campus along with some from central office – dying to teach a lesson, according to professor Majid Sarmadi who, along with Curtis, arranges the annual murder scene.

The partners in make-believe crime build in clues for the students to solve the puzzle using science.

“When I saw my students weren’t learning, I blamed myself,” Sarmadi says. “To me, teaching is hope and learning is a celebration of life.  The teacher is the master of ceremony, so if the party isn’t good, I didn’t plan it well. I looked at what I could change to bring the lessons to life.”

A mysterious murder was the answer. So far, the Crime Scenes Investigation class has been a great party.

Crime scenes are the perfect way to teach through hands-on learning, Sarmadi says, and Curtis provides a positive role-model for a career in law enforcement and applied science.

“He does an excellent job of explaining the crime scene and helping the students to collect evidence,” Sarmadi says of Curtis.  Of course, his badge adds credibility.

A 22-year department veteran, Curtis says working with the students is one of his favorite activities.  Although it’s become a popular topic on television, few associate law enforcement with complicated scientific fields such as anatomy, chemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, textiles and polymers.

“We bring the real world of police work to them,” Curtis says. “Except that in the real world it takes more than 30 minutes to solve a crime.”  

He’s been impressed by the acting skills and dedication of the university’s administrative victims.

“We have to practice, set them up and then they remain in that position for quite a while,” Curtis says.

In solving the crime, students learn about different professional fields and majors on campus using chromatography, spectrophotometers, infrared analysis and flammability testing equipment. They then hold a mock trial to present the evidence. 

“High schools don’t have this type of equipment or the experts to teach how to use it,” Sarmadi says.  The students love it because it’s a lot of fun,” Sarmadi says. “They are itching to learn who did it, so they try to bribe me and the teaching assistants with candy bars.”

The intended 2011 victim – Chancellor Biddy Martin – barely escaped by a taking a new job as president of Amherst College, but was replaced by College of Letters and Science Dean Gary Sandefur.

“That shows that the campus and people at a high level at the university are committed to undergraduate education and the PEOPLE program,” Sarmadi says. “I never worry about where about where to find the next victim because there are always a few volunteer deans in the queue.”