The Ecological Mystery Project was begun by an ESIP English teacher, Cheri Jefferson, and her eighth grade students at Patuxent Valley Middle School in Jessup, Maryland. Ms. Jefferson wanted to develop an interdisciplinary unit using the wetlands site upon which the school is located. She began by encouraging students to read around in science literature by Jean Craighead George. They found the ecological mystery series by Ms. George, The Missing Gator of Gumbo Limbo, Who Really Killed Cock Robin? and The Firebug Connection, and were hooked. They wanted to write their own wetland mysteries. Over the course of the year, in 50 minute sessions once a week, they researched ideas for their ecological problems and wrote wonderful mysteries of their own.
What is an Eco-Mystery?
An ecological mystery is like a scientific investigation and a mystery story all rolled into one. In an eco-mystery the traditional role of the murderer or villain is taken by an unknown ecological problem. The characters are affected by the puzzle, and like an old-fashioned gumshoe, pursue an investigation to understand and solve it.
Noted science author, Jean Craighead-George, has written 4 eco-mysteries among her more than 70 science literature books.
- In The Firebug Connection (Harper Trophy, 1993), Maggie receives a gift of firebugs at her parents’ research center – but they keep dying. She follows every clue to locate the culprit.
- The Missing ‘Gator of Gumbo Limbo (Harper Trophy, 1992) tells the story of Liza, who lives in a homeless squatters’ community in a fragment of the Florida Everglades. She learns about the vital balance among its creatures, and when the big ‘gator is threatened by an official with a gun, Liza uses her knowledge to find it and assure its safety.
- In Who Really Killed Cock Robin? (Harper Trophy, 1991), Tony explores a maze of local ecological problems, including parks overrun with ants and nights silenced without frogs’ singing, along with new pollutants in the town dump and the local river. These all add up to answer his question- who killed the young robin in his backyard?
- In The Case of the Missing Cutthroats (Harper Trophy, 1975), Spinner, who loves to dance, reluctantly leaves the city to join her father at a family fishing camp. There she catches a fish that’s supposed to be extinct and sets off on an adventure to learn why. As she climbs waterfalls and tangles with a grizzly, she learns how to survive and grow in the river country of Wyoming.
The Eco-mystery project begins when students take an observation walk and take careful notes of everything they see, hear, and smell. This concrete experience provides the raw material from which they will draw ideas and craft their stories. Going on a nature walk is a traditional science class activity, and allows children to gather valuable information, but if that information goes unused, they will not retain it. By using their nature observations as the source for a written narrative and its setting details, the students reach a deeper understanding. In approaching science through an eco-mystery, the children make connections naturally and enthusiastically in a way they might not have on an ordinary nature walk. As one young student commented, “We just didn’t try to figure out a mystery, we saw things and solved other mysteries, too. I saw stuff I didn’t know. I saw salamanders under dead trees …. That’s how I figured out it wasn’t good to take all the dead trees….”
Writing the Mystery
When teacher Cheri Jefferson’s class decided to embark on their writing project, she contacted Jean Craighead George for advice. Ms. George responded with a very encouraging letter which outlined some of the steps she uses in crafting her eco-mystery books:
Writing the Story
- Identify the problem (the mystery). Ms. George reads Science News and other journals where writers have identified problems and are exploring solutions. In her book, The Firebug Connection, Ms. George knew the ‘whodunit’ was going to be the balsam fir tree because of an article she had read; other times she does research while writing the story. A student might want to know, “Where did the frogs go?”
- Investigate the problem. (Even if the student knows the answer before they begin their story, they save it for the end of their mystery.)
- Observation: Visit the area that serves as the setting of the story. Make notes and observations on the animals, plants, sights and sounds, and on how they are related. These notes will
be a major source for writing the story.
- Experiments: Do your own experiments and test the air, water, ground, plants, insects, etc. Take careful notes. As you make discoveries, you may begin to find your ‘criminal’ for the eco-mystery.
- Cite regularities: When you can find the things that have stayed the same in the ecological setting (the usual amount of rainfall, the usual variety of food sources) you are ready to notice where something has changed. Perhaps there is a new landfill upriver from your site – this irregularity is a possible ‘villain’.
- Explanations and Conclusions – Solving the Mystery. Review your problem and the results of your observations and experiments. Can you suggest a cause for the ecological problem? Once you know what’s going on, you are ready to tell your story. You will take the reader through everything you did, but develop it with characters, place, time, scenery and a plot.
- Create a main character who has a reason to care about your ecological problem. Perhaps it is a daughter of a zoo specialist who spends time behind the scenes of the local zoo.
- Develop a few supporting characters who can play key roles in your plot – perhaps the zoo veterinarian who would know something about each of the zoo inhabitants. As your character works through the mystery, the zoo veterinarian can be a source of information.
- Provide some background on the main character as the story goes along to draw the reader into ‘knowing’ your character.
- Think about your target audience. That will affect the kind of information you provide and how complex your ideas will be.
- Include ‘red herrings’. Every good mystery has some distractions, which misdirect the main character’s investigation. This also keeps the readers guessing until you are ready to tell all in the conclusion.
For some student sample Eco-mysteries, click here.
Is an Eco-Mystery more than just writing?
Absolutely, YES! Eco-mystery writing teaches writing skills and good science skills. Involvement in this writing has motivated students to:
- Increase their recreational reading (several students read all of Jean Craighead George’s books and then move on to other authors; students have asked for books for a birthday or holiday gift)
- Increase their writing and enter writing contests
- Apply for special summer programs and cite their interest in their ecological study as the reason to attend
- Explore a variety of writing forms to convey their ideas to their readers
- Enhance their observation skills as they track changes in a local environment on their nature walks
- Create and develop habitats in their school yard to lure new wildlife for observation
(excerpted from George, Twig C. “Writing Eco-Mysteries” in Saul, W. and Reardon, J. (eds) Beyond the Science Kit: Inquiry in Action. Heinemann, 1996)
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9912078. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.