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Ecological Mysteries

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.


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:

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:

(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.