Hands-on science lessons solve murder in CSI-Madison

PEOPLE summer workshops
With the help of University Police Detective Anthony Curtis, students in the PEOPLE program Crime Scene Investigation workshop prepare to use science to investigate the scene of the mock murder of Provost Paul M. DeLuca in his Bascom Hall office. Photo by Andy Manis/PEOPLE


UW-Madison Provost Paul DeLuca says he’s willing to do almost anything to help students learn. And this week, he proved it by remaining inert for nearly 45 minutes, head slumped face-down on a table with a suspicious plastic bag around his neck – murdered for the sake of learning.

As students from the PEOPLE program Crime Scenes Investigation workshop filed through his office and cell-phone photographed the crime-taped scene, University Police Detective Anthony Curtis recommended  details to note and advised the high school students to observe carefully before Deluca was removed — er uh, — resumed his workday and saved the coroner a trip.

 It’s been happening every year for more than a decade – top UW-Madison administrators from schools and colleges across campus along with some from central office – dying to teach a lesson, according to Prof. Majid Sarmadi, who arranges the annual murder scene with the professional assistance of University Police Detective Anthony Curtis.  The partners in make-believe crime build in countless “clues” for the students to solve the puzzle using science from the position of the victim to physical evidence at the scene.

“When I saw my students weren’t learning, I blamed myself,” Sarmadi said. “To me, teaching is hope and learning is a celebration of life.  The teacher is the master of ceremony, so if the party isn’t good, I didn’t plan it well. I looked at what I could change to bring the lessons to life.”

Ironically, a mysterious murder was the answer. So far, the Crime Scenes Investigation class has been a great party – a New Orleans-style jazz funeral of learning.

Crime scenes are the perfect way to teach through hands-on learning, Sarmadi says, and Curtis provides a positive role-model for a career in law enforcement and applied science.

“He does an excellent job of explaining the crime scene and helping the students to collect evidence,” Sarmadi said of Curtis.  And of course his badge adds credibility to the exercise.

A 22-year veteran of the University Police Department, Curtis is one of two detectives who specialize in financial crimes like embezzlement or check and credit fraud, along with conflict resolution, providing security services for high-profile campus visitors and as an athletic liaison. Curtis’ official duties make the time he’s willing to devote to teaching particularly precious, Sarmadi added.

In his other roles, he’s a “shadow in the background,” Curtis said, so working with the students is one of his favorite activities.  Although it’s become a popular topic on television, few people associate law enforcement with complicated scientific fields such as anatomy, chemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, textiles and polymers, just to name a few.

“We bring the real world of police work to them,” Curtis said. “Except that in the real world it takes more than 30 minutes to solve a crime.”  Over the years he’s been impressed by the acting skills and dedication of the University’s administrative victims.

“We have to practice, set them up and then they remain in that position for quite a while,” Curtis said.

 In 2003, School of Human Ecology Dean Robin Douthitt bravely maintained a stiff upper lip with her glasses askew at her desk. In 2004, former Dean of Student Affairs Paul Barrows was discovered as a PNB (pulseless non-breather in police terms) on the floor of his office. Now-retired Provost Peter Spears met his demise in 2005 and former School of Education Assistant Dean Walter Lane bought a temporary plot on the farm in 2006. An apparent budget dispute left Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell face down on a ledger in 2007, and SOHE Administrative Specialist Jill Riley didn’t live to savor a suspicious soda in 2008. In 2009, Business School Dean Mike Knetter parished on a loveseat in his office – dress loafers dangling in the air.  In 2010, Dean of Students Lori Berquam expired unexpectedly and later walked away.    

In solving the crime, students learn about different professional fields and majors on campus using chromatography, spectrophotometers, infrared analysis and flammability testing equipment. They then hold a mock trial to present the evidence. 

“High schools don’t have this type of equipment or the experts to teach how to use it,” Sarmadi said.  The students love it because it’s a lot of fun,” Sarmadi says. “They are itching to learn who did it, so they try to bribe me and the teaching assistants with candy bars.”

The intended 2011 victim – Chancellor Biddy Martin – barely escaped by a chilling route:  Taking a new job as President of Amherst College.  The Grim Reaper of Learning quietly claimed College of Letters and Science Dean Gary Sandefur.

 “That shows that the campus and people at a high level at the University are committed to undergraduate education and the PEOPLE program,” Sarmadi said. “I never worry about where about where to find the next victim because there are always a few volunteer deans in the queue.”

In fact, there’s a University Police Chief on that volunteer list, he added.  

“The day I can’t do something for students is the day I’m going to retire,” DeLuca said. But today was not that day.