While it wasn’t the most interactive volunteer experience Dean Kate VandenBosch has ever had, it was an important one for a group of high school students visiting campus this summer.

Over the course of an hour this Monday, VandenBosch “played dead” while more than 100 ninth graders in the university’s PEOPLE Program visited her office, which had been set up to look like a crime scene for a CSI-style science activity.

The cause of death? An apparent poisoning. Now, with the clues found at the scene, the students are working to crack the case.

“When I started this program 18 years ago, I decided to teach these kids chemistry, but they didn’t enjoy going to the lab and doing chemical analysis just for the sake of it,” says Majid Sarmadi, a professor of design studies in the School of Human Ecology, who helped establish the PEOPLE Program. “So I created this CSI activity. Now the students have a specific problem to solve and they get really excited about [the lab work].”

The PEOPLE Program brings middle school and high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to the UW-Madison campus during the summer. The curriculum is designed to help prepare them for their upcoming college experiences—hopefully at UW-Madison.

Now as a former “victim” in this activity, VandenBosch joins an elite group of university administrators who have played this role.

Dean Kate VandenBosch gets instructions from Majid Sarmadi before the event starts.
Dean Kate VandenBosch gets some instructions from Majid Sarmadi before the activity starts.

“We generally kill off a dean or a provost or a chancellor, someone in a high-profile position,” says Sarmadi. “It shows that the university is willing to go out of its way to help [the students] learn. That’s an important message.” Past victims include former UW Provost Paul DeLuca, UW Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell, UW Foundation President Mike Knetter and UW Police Chief Susan Riseling.

While VandenBosch’s part only took one hour, the PEOPLE Program students have a lot of work ahead of them to do to determine the culprit. When they visited her office, the students discovered more than a handful of clues around the room. For the rest of the week, they’ll be analyzing them in the lab, performing all sorts of tests: poison analysis, pen analysis, lipstick analysis, DNA analysis, fabric analysis, plastic analysis and more. On Friday they’ll hold a mock trial to sentence the perpetrator, with PEOPLE Program students playing the roles of judge, jury members, expert witnesses and more.

“So not only do they learn to do the lab work and look at the results, they also think about how all of these things fit together and how to construct an argument and present a case,” says Sarmadi, who notes that this CSI activity has been adopted by schools in California and other states.