The scene of the crime

In a crime scene investigation camp at Southern Oregon University, a happy passel of 8-to-12-year-olds is decoding cryptic messages, taking fingerprints and breaking down ink to figure out what pen it came from.

Called Crime and Puzzlement, the five-day camp is one of 60 for youngsters 6 and older being offered through SOU this summer. Others involve art, theater, scuba diving, Lego robotics, wilderness skills, horses, cooking, video game design, Claymation — the list goes on.

Crime and Puzzlement is a far cry from the days of Ovaltine and the Secret Squadron decoder ring.

"It's really fun," says 9-year-old sleuth Tate Oliver of Ashland. "We learn to figure out a crime, the steps of observing, interpreting, applying the tools. It's an arson combined with a faked murder."

"We have to figure out who did it and should be arrested, even the small details," says detective Sophie Groener, 10, of Bend.

Switching hats and other guises, teacher Steve Roby stages elaborate scenarios, each carrying new evidence that the kids learn to spot. Then they activate their deductive reasoning skills, he says. They also get to interrogate him and try to figure out when he's lying.

"Yesterday, I rushed into class, out of breath and slammed down my coffee cup," says Roby, who during the school year is a teacher at Logos Public Charter School in Medford. "So, what can they deduce from this? What can they apply to the scenario, which started on Monday and changes every day?"

In the arson scene, the kids examine scraps of wood to spy what marks were made by what tools. Who has the tools? The murder weapon — poison — came from a certain food; which suspect has a stain of that food on his hat?

"The goal," says Roby, "is for the kids to feel confident in their own process of deductive reasoning."

Gumshoe Grady Baymiller, 11, of Central Point, saying he wants to be a wildlife officer and would actually be using the fingerprinting he's playfully working on at the moment.

"It's fun, comparing the bite marks on a Styrofoam cup and making notes in our booklets, trying to figure out where the suspects were at what time," Grady says. His Joe Friday, 10-year-old Jeep Risner of Ashland, says he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.

"I really like it," he says. "We set up our investigation of the crime scene and create stories to go with it, learning the forensics as we go along."

On breaks, Roby and the kids study cases in a crime scene investigation book and try to deduce clues from pictures. Was the glass door broken from the inside or outside? If from the inside, what does that tell them?

The summer camps range from $69 to $279, depending on materials and travel. Most are at SOU, though an oceanography camp is being held on the coast, and another camp offers sewing classes at a downtown shop. A theater camp at Camelot Theatre in August will draw 50.

Oddly, most camps are not that well known, says director Stephanie Butler of SOU's Continuing Education.

"It's a well-kept secret and I'm always surprised how many people I meet who have no idea about it," says Butler.

Coming up next week are camps in racquetball, tennis, fencing, realism in art and a college prep institute. Konaway Nika Tillicum academy for Native American youth was held earlier this summer, and Academia Latina, for college-bound Hispanic teens, starts Aug. 10.

The camps are the creation of Continuing Education, an independent arm of SOU that enjoys the support, classrooms, computers, video equipment and other assistance of the university. The camps run through the end of August.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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