Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mystery Class 2015

Journey North's Mystery Class project is a really fun, albeit sometimes challenging long-term geography project. It is one of the more enjoyable academic activities my kids and I have done. This year's project gets underway on 30 January so it seems timely to reprise this post of mine from last year.


One of the most enjoyable long term projects that I've done with my middle school aged children (some have taken part at a late elementary and early high school age but, for my kids at least, middle school has been the perfect fit) is Journey North's Mystery Class. Using sunlight and sunset data, plus a variety of other clues, the aim is to correctly identify the locations of ten secret sites - the Mystery Classes - from all around the globe. This year's project runs from January until May. Although it is well underway there is still time to enrol and participate fully. Alternatively you could work with just one or two locations to give the project an unofficial try this time around. There is a Participation Guide  plus resources online to help you on your way. Or you can read on and see what we do.

Every Friday we receive an email with a link to the current week's data - the time of sunrise and sunset for each of the ten sites on that Friday. You also need to obtain the time of sunrise and sunset for your own town that day. And no,  you don't have to actually be awake at the time in order to note them! Ours are in the local newspaper. If you can't easily find the information for the place you live pick a major city nearby and you'll easily find what you are looking for online with a quick Google search e.g. "New York sunrise sunset".  Once you have that you calculate the photoperiod for each site - how much daylight they received. Miss 13's favourite approach is as follows. If the sunrises at 7:27  and sets at 20:34 she'll write down 33 minutes (the amount of time from 7:27 until the next hour - in this case 8:00 am). Next she'll write down 4 hours (to take the time through until 12 noon). Then she'll write down another 8 hours and 34 minutes (to take the time from noon until sunset - in this case 8:34 pm). Finally, she adds the three together to get 12 hours and 67 minutes. In this example she'll then regroup to get 13 hours and 7 minutes of daylight.

One of our data sheets showing the sunrise, sunset and photoperiod for one of this year's secret sites.

The next step is to plot the information for all eleven sites - the 10 Mystery Classes plus your home site - on a graph. After a few weeks you'll start to notice patterns. Some classes will be increasing the amount of daylight they receive while others will be receiving less. In some cases the changes will be gradual; in others far more abrupt. By looking at these changes and comparing the relative amount of daylight that different locations receive you can start to narrow down their likely latitude.

Our graph showing every site's photoperiod each week. 

In addition to the weekly data you will also receive links to a journal page that encourages you to reflect on the data and guides you through the process of locating the Mystery Classes. An early journal page asked us "How do the data and graph lines show you which Mystery Class sites are north and south of your latitude?" while last week's asked us to draw our graph the way we predict it will look at the end of March and to explain why we think so.

Once during the project, around the time of the Vernal Equinox, you'll receive a special set of data that, with a few calculations, will allow you to estimate the longitude of each site. This is because on that day all places with the same longitude experience sunrise at the same time.

One of our longitude clue sheets from last year.

During the final four weeks you'll receive a variety of clues that will lead you to the continent, country and finally city you are looking for. These might be facts about history, language, sports or climate. Sometimes there will be a picture as well.

Once the final clues have been received you have two weeks to submit your answers - if you choose to do so. Then all ten locations are revealed along with the names of all the groups that successfully identified all ten locations. The final week is a meet and greet with photos, videos and other facts and messages from each of the ten Mystery Classes.In 2012 some of the locations were Rabat in Morocco,  Shaw Island USA and Palampur, India. You can have a look at  their introductions for an idea of what to expect. This information from each class is a great way to learn about different parts of the world and can then be extended in whatever way you like - a party with food from each country for instance.

This year Miss 13 and I are splitting the data and calculations between us. We've both participated before and are familiar with the process so it's only taking us about 20 minutes per week. If you are just starting out and if only one person is doing all the work allow more time - maybe an hour or slightly longer. This Friday the longitude clues will arrive. It'll probably take us a little over twice as long. It is difficult to give an estimate of how long we'll spend during the final four weeks as we try to use the clues to correctly identify each location. In the past my kids and I have found some places fairly straightforward and others much trickier and more time consuming. It all comes down to a combination of prior knowledge, research skills and sometimes a little luck!

If you want to participate this year I have a couple of tips that might make it more manageable and fun. The first is to work as a group - friends, family or both. If everybody calculates, graphs and searches for just one or two locations the workload is much more manageable.  I've found younger kids can join in too if they receive a little help as needed.You can also share tips and pick each other's brains if you are struggling to identify certain sites. Another suggestion is to only calculate and graph the data for every second week. You'll still gains the trends and comparisons which is the key information. And you'll still be able to complete all the journal pages if you want - or you can simply discuss some or all of them. This might save time and is a good way of sharing ideas and thought processes in a group situation. Or, as I mentioned at the beginning, you can not officially enter but just pick one or two sites to work on for fun.

I've found Mystery North to be a great real- life application and extension of knowledge about seasons, latitude, longitude, time zones, universal time, equinoxes and more. It's  a good chance to hone research skills and a fun way to learn about life in other parts of the world.


My two youngest children were both lucky enough to be Mystery Classes. This gave us a whole new level of involvement and insight.  You can read their class introductions here (2010) and here (2014).

Based on several years of participation I high recommend Mystery Class as a wonderful addition to your homeschool.

Linking up with The Geography Blog Hop

1 comment:

  1. Great written post about JN Mystery Class! We have loved this yearly project :)