Crime Scene Soil Investigation

Cynthia Deaton and Sarah Simms
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Experiment/Lab Activity , Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Billy's bike has been stolen and it is up to your students to crack the case by analyzing the soil tagged as evidence at the crime scene. Students use handheld digital microscopes connected to iPads to capture images of the soil for analysis to exonerate and indict the suspects. Students observe properties of soil (particle size, texture, and color) while developing an understanding of the different properties of soil based on their interaction with rain. Students also use a model to examine how water would interact with different soil types.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 5
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectations

5-PS1-3 Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.

Clarification Statement: Examples of materials to be identified could include baking soda and other powders, metals, minerals, and liquids. Examples of properties could include color, hardness, reflectivity, electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, response to magnetic forces, and solubility; density is not intended as an identifiable property.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include density or distinguishing mass and weight.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students explicitly observe three properties of soil: particle size, texture and color. They also investigate the porosity of different soils by pouring water through samples. If they place a beaker under the soil samples, then they would be measuring the amount of water not absorbed by the different materials. That would address the entire PE and make the alignment more explicit. Have students create data tables in their science notebooks where they measure volume and time and perform multiple trials. Students might then use their data to make a more accurate description of the soil based on data from multiple trials. Students might also write claims, evidence and reasoning statements using their data as evidence.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students are asked to use a model to examine how water would interact with different soil types. To improve alignment, have groups of students create the models themselves and conduct the experiment. Students could then be asked to independently draw a model of the interaction between the water and the soil samples. They could then use their models to write a claim supported by evidence in their notebooks.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students and teachers measure the amount of water that flows through the different soil types. Students measure the amount of time it takes for water to pass through the soil but do not explicitly discuss how they measure the specific amounts of water that flow through the model. An alternative way to address the Disciplinary Core Idea would be to have students plan and conduct an absorption investigation where they measure how much of the water remains in the soil samples.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Student understanding of the Crosscutting Concept might be elicited by asking students to share what soil properties could be measured for data or which scales students might use to measure different soil properties. These questions might be asked and answered as students are physically investigating the soils. They also have an opportunity for measurements when the students measure the amount of water that passes through each soil type. If students measure how much water passes through the soil and how much water is retained, questions such as, “How many milliliters did the clay absorb?” will assist the students becoming more explicit in using standard units in their discourse and their explanations. When students are first asked to explain their thinking for why they made the choices they did regarding the questions above, here is the opportunity for the connection to scale, proportion and quantity. It will be up to the teacher to make those connections explicit.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The resource explicitly uses all three dimensions of NGSS but also disclaims that the scenario is just part of the work the class must do to make meaning about structures and properties of matter. Students will be engaged in these investigations by the narrative of working to solve a mystery using modern technology, making the learning relevant.

  • Instructional Supports: The resource provides multiple opportunities for students to express, clarify, justify and represent their ideas and respond to peer and teacher feedback through an engaging scenario. A soil sample worksheet, suggestions for supporting struggling learners, and modifications for classrooms without access to the required technology are included in the resource. For learners who are exceeding expectations a teacher might consider The Globe Program of soil investigations is excellent to extend the learning for students exceeding the expectations:

  • Monitoring Student Progress: A brief passage outlines how assessments were done throughout the learning experiences, but there are many unmentioned opportunities for ongoing formative assessment. Listening to the discourse of the students in the scientist meeting will provide the teacher with information about student understanding. Teacher might ask students to write a claim, evidence , and reasoning statement at different points in the investigation. The teacher might use such CER statements to make instructional decisions.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The technology is integral to this learning opportunity. Students use the digital images as a primary source for the data they are gathering. An additional way technology might be used is for the students to post on a site like Padlet their answer to the mystery along with their evidence. This can be followed by students reading other responses and responding to at least one of their classmates. Students might engage in arguing from evidence if this learning opportunity is offered.