CSI: Dognapping at Sandia

I spent Monday, January 10, at Sandia’s Advanced Materials Laboratory, in Albuquerque, to witness a unique outreach program that has been an annual weeklong event for the past several years. The lab invites several groups of 4th graders for a chemical magic show that supposedly culminates in a dog doing chemical magic tricks. But just before the dog takes the stage, its handlers discover that it has gone missing. And so a two-hour program of 4th graders just watching staged gee-whiz chemistry becomes a multipronged science-driven activity aimed at figuring out who stole the dog. Here's how the program began:

Kids enter the magic show room after receiving lab coats and safety goggles

Bill Hammetter, AML's manager for ceramic processing and inorganic materials, instructs kids to don their lab coats.

With kids properly garbed for a chemical magic show, AML researcher Bernadette Hernandez-Sanchez welcomes them and introduces the warm-up act of four demonstrators competing for the best magic trick: Sarah Hoppe mixes rainbow water, Diane Dickie performs clock reaction, Alia Saad creates fake snow, and Kari Monroe makes elephant toothpaste. Then must come the main event, but Lucy, the chemical magic dog is missing. AML scientist Tim Boyle suspects that one of the visiting kids kidnapped Lucy. This amateur video captures the program up to this point. Beware: Many parts are jumpy and can make you dizzy. To determine who took Lucy, every boy and girl must give a fingerprint, a footprint, and a voice sample.


Fourth grader talks into a microphone for voiceprinting

The data are compared with the fingerprint, voiceprint, and footprint gathered from the crime scene, and all kids are exonerated. But where is Lucy? Tim Boyle asks the kids to investigate the case of the missing dog. But first they must take an oath to be sworn in as junior scientists.

Junior scientists' oath

The enthusiasm at swearing-in, led by University New Mexico chemistry professor and Sandia scientist Richard Kemp, is ear-piercing: Now the junior scientists are ready to examine the evidence at the crime scene.

The crime scene

The lab has four suspects, and the junior scientists must figure out whodunit by examining the evidence at six science stations. Using what they are told about the suspects and what they learn at each station, they associate each piece of evidence to all likely suspects. Eventually, they nail the culprit from the preponderance of evidence correlating with him or her. Here are some scenes from the science stations. At the Powder Lab, they examine the white powder at the crime scene, they prepare a material called Yuck, and they learn about non-Newtonian fluids, which behave like a solid when something hits them with force but like a liquid when handled gently.

Powder Lab

Making Yuck

At the pH Station, they examine the yellow spill at the crime scene, use cabbage juice as pH indicator, and learn about acids and bases.

pH Station

Using cabbage juice to learn about pH

At the Glow Station, they test the notecard from the crime scene for hidden messages and see how the colors of rocks and minerals change when samples are illuminated with UV or "black" light.

Glow Station

Revealing hidden messages

At the Nano Station, they learn what "nanometer" means and figure out that the purple liquid in the crime scene is nanogold. They learn that nanogold has a different color because when particles are very small, their physical properties change. They also learn that many items of daily life contain nanomaterials.

Undergraduate Cory Zarick explaining the meaning of nanometer

High school senior Clement Jose at the Nano Station

At the Magnet Station, the kids examine the key in the crime scene, learn about magnetism, and observe a metal levitating when placed in the magnetic field of a supercooled superconductor.

Testing for magnetism

At the Fiber Station, the kids examine the pieces of string in the crime scene, learn the differences between synthetic and natural fibers, and see how weird ice cream and other common foods look when viewed from a scanning electron microscope.

Postdoc Stephanie Teich-McGoldrick at the Fiber Station

Using a microscope for fiber forensics

After gathering the forensic results, the kids, with the help of grownups, correlate their findings with the known characteristics of each suspect. They declare as the culprit the suspect to whom they associate the most evidence. The culprit then returns Lucy to the lab and all the kids get to meet her.

Everybody loves Lucy

All's well with Lucy, and with the kids, who cap their stint as junior scientists investigating a crime with liquid-nitrogen-prepared ice cream, prepared with the help of ACS President Nancy B. Jackson, herself a scientist at Sandia.

Leigh Anna Ottley and Nancy Jackson preparing ice cream with the help of liquid nitrogen

The fun-filled two hours pass quickly, to the delight and relief of the many volunteers who made possible the dog days at Sandia's Advanced Materials Laboratory. A few of the almost 100 volunteers for the weeklong outreach program are pictured here:

Volunteers Galore: Back row, from left: Sarah Hoppe, Janelle Branson, Kyle Fenton, Bill Hammetter, Tim Boyle, Clement Jose, Rick Kemp, Rick Muller, Chris Larsen, and Stephanie Teich-McGoldrick; middle row, from left: Kristen Meyer, Diane Dickie, Patrick Burton, Derek Wichhart, Leigh Anna Ottley, and Marie Parkes; front row, from left: Ray Trowbridge, Bernadette Hernandez-Sanchez, Jeff Salzbrenner, Cory Zarick, Alia Saad, and Thu Doan; on pedestal, Lucy

Author: Maureen Rouhi

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  1. This looks like such a fun day, and educational. Thanks for writing about this, and setting such a great example for the rest of us!

  2. I bet college students would get an equal thrill out of this as those 4th graders. Clever way to pique their interest in science.

  3. We do a similar scenario based crime with a portable curriculum kit, called the “Cookie Jar Mystery.” Kids absolutely eat this stuff up…one of the best ways to energize STEM is through role playing. It’s hands-on, relevant and fun!

  4. Stephanie T-M is a Goddess!