Jose Mota was cutting and pasting copies of personal checks into a notebook where he would analyze the loops and patterns in the handwriting. He was hot on the trail of a suspect who'd written a ransom note.
Mota is not a detective. He's 13 and the mystery - who stole the magic team's bunny - is part of a science summer camp he's attending. During the two weeks camp, he’ll be a crime scene investigator.
Solving mysteries will be a welcome change from the challenges he usually faces. Mota and the other kids attending this camp are homeless.
The day camp, called "See Us Succeed," is hosted by the California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) Science Education Department and serves kids from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Laura Henriques, a professor at the university who trains education majors on how to teach science, began the camp in 2008 to reach kids who are at risk of being left behind at school because of insecure housing. Homeless students - which include those who are staying with relatives or otherwise temporary housing - are nine times more likely to repeat a grade and four times as likely to drop out compared with students who have a stable living situation, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness.
“They change schools more frequently. They have higher lack of attendance," said Henriques. "They’re more likely to not get science than other children if they’re behind in English or math.”
Science is often neglected in elementary school in favor of teaching English and math and low-income families often can't afford to pay for after school science programs, she explained.
“For some of these kids, it’s the first time they’ve done any science. You know, how many have used a ruler? How many have used a magnifying glass? None of them," Henriques said. "But by the end of camp they have!”
The camp, which is free for students, receives about $40,000 in funding from the Earl and Loraine Miller Foundation and other local organizations. It has space for 120 students. Henriques said she's anticipating about 100 will attend this summer.
Camp participants will receive book bags, school supplies and uniforms. Students will also receive free dental and vision screenings - and eyeglasses if they need them. The Smile Bright Foundation is providing the vision screenings; St. Mary Medical Center the eye exams; and the Lion's Club is paying for the glasses.
Henriques said she keeps these children's living situation in mind when designing classes. For instance, some instructors have brainstormed ideas that involve experimenting on food items. Henriques said she'll ask those teachers: "Do you really want to be wasting food in front of children who wonder where their next meal is coming from?”
The camp is divided by grade level, each of which has a theme: the human body, crawling animals and engineering. Mota and his middle school-aged classmates are in forensic science-themed camp and will get a crash course in investigative techniques. They'll practice collecting and analyzing fingerprints, determining blood types and performing hair and fiber exams.
Francisco Gutierrez, one of the other camp participants, said science was now his favorite subject and that he wants to become a scientist when he is older.
Mota took to the missing bunny exercise immediately. He took measurements and made calculations and conversions in his head.
Originally, he wasn’t planning to attend the camp, but he changed his mind the night before camp started.
“I told my mom to fill out my form to come," Jose said. "I just wanted to go, because it was of science. I like science.”