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Who Killed the Red Baron?

Classroom Activity


To learn how to apply deductive thinking to evaluate evidence and draw conclusions.

Materials for teacher
  • copy of the "Fact Sets" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • envelopes
  • scissors
Materials for each group
  • copy of the "Who Made the Mess?" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • envelopes containing Fact Set 1, Fact Set 2, and Fact Set 3
  • scissors
  1. Deductive reasoning can be applied to factual information to help reconstruct historical events. Tell students that they will be doing an activity in which they will apply deductive reasoning.

  2. Copy enough versions of the "Fact Sets" student handout so that each group of three will receive a complete set of facts. Cut out and place Fact Set 1, Fact Set 2, and Fact Set 3 together into an envelope for each group.

  3. Organize the class into groups of three and provide each group with copies of the "Who Made the Mess?" student handout and a "Fact Sets" envelope.

  4. Have one student from each group choose a fact set from the envelope and read the facts to the other group members. Have students decide which facts in the set are most relevant and the sequence in which they may have occurred. Then have students form a hypothesis of what may have happened based on the fact set. Ask students to rate their confidence level in their hypothesis.

  5. Instruct a second student in each group to choose another fact set from the envelope. Have students revisit their rankings of relevance and resequence and revise the facts as needed. Ask students to repeat the procedure with the third person in the group for the final set of facts.

  6. Have each member cut his or her set of facts into separate strips, with one fact for each strip. Allow groups enough time to determine relevance and sequence of all 15 facts and to support the group's conclusion about the cause of the mess.

  7. Discuss as a class the various conclusions groups reached. Allow groups to compare their interpretations and debate any disagreements. Did any one fact set seem more conclusive than another? If so, why? How did additional fact sets change students' theories about the event?

  8. As an extension, assign students to find out other ways that deductive reasoning is applied to forensic investigations.

Activity Answer

Here is one interpretation of the facts using the fewest facts possible to support the conclusion. The key facts have been arranged below in the order in which they may have occurred. Note that sequence is determined by when an event occurred, not by when it became known.

  1. The flour bag was on the floor. It was torn open and spilled.

  2. Muddy footprints were found entering and exiting the kitchen.

  3. A fine layer of flour covered the dried footprints.

  4. There were squirrel tracks in the flour leaving the kitchen but none entering were found.

From these facts, one conclusion that could be drawn is that the boys arrived some time after the rain because "muddy footprints were found entering and exiting the kitchen" (Fact 2). The boys left the kitchen before the flour bag fell because the flour "covered the dried footprints" (Fact 3). A squirrel left the kitchen after the flour spilled (Fact 4). One conclusion could be that the flour fell from the counter during the squirrel visit (Facts 1 and 4). The fact that the bag was torn open suggests that the squirrel made the mess rather than the wind blowing in from outside. However, students can't know for sure how the flour was knocked off the counter. Although teams might show that the door was opened by the wind or left open by the boys and that the mail arrived last, neither point is significant to the conclusion.

The remaining facts are supportive facts. Some teams may disagree about whether a fact is important or supportive. For example, "There were wet shoe prints, now dry, on the floor" seems important but can be considered supportive because it is redundant with Fact 2.

The fact sets were deliberately assembled to suggest an unsupported idea. Set 1 suggests the squirrel(s), Set 2 suggests the weather, and Set 3 suggests the boys. Although teams will conclude that the squirrel(s) made the mess, compelling evidence cannot be assembled from any single fact set. When a class is assembled as groups, there are usually students who would rather work alone for various reasons. This activity highlights the contributions of individuals working cooperatively and the summative power of a group.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA's Web Site—Who Killed the Red Baron?
In this companion Web site for the NOVA program, view a pictorial timeline of World War I aviation innovations, read the Red Baron's writings, explore competing theories about the Red Baron's death, and follow the life of one U.S. fighter who voluntarily joined Allied forces.

Crime Scene Investigator
Provides guidelines for crime scene response and evidence collection, articles on crime scene examination, and tips on how to become a crime scene investigator.

The Death of Manfred von Richthofen: Who Fired the Fatal Shot?
Discusses the controversy regarding who was responsible for the Red Baron's death.

The Red Baron's Last Flight
Describes von Richthofen's life, including his final battle.

The Red Fighter Pilot
Presents an online edition of a book written by von Richthofen in 1917 titled The Red Battle Flyer.


Franks, Norman and Alan Bennett. The Red Baron's Last Flight. St. Catharines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing Ltd., 1997.
Investigates the controversy over von Richthofen's last flight.

Kilduff, Peter. Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron. New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1994.
Provides a biography of von Richthofen, written by a historian with extensive access to previously unpublished German sources.

Kilduff, Peter. The Illustrated Red Baron. London: Arms & Armour, 1999.
Provides a pictorial review of von Richthofen's life, including the highlights of his career.


The "Who Made the Mess?" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards.

Grades 5-8

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry:

  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.

Grades 9-12

Science Standard A:
Science as Inquiry

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry:

  • Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.

Classroom Activity Author

James Sammons has taught middle and high school science for 30 years. His teaching practices have been recognized by the National Science Teachers Association, the Soil Conservation Service, and the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. A former research biologist, Sammons continues to participate in basic research. He is a member of the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union.

Teacher's Guide
Who Killed the Red Baron?

Video is not required for this activity
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