Oct 31 2006

Solving Imaginary Crimes

Teachers discover that analyzing blood stains, inspecting fingerprints and fine-tuning deductive reasoning while solving ‘crimes' at school keeps students engaged.

Wylie Wong

A DEAD WOMAN WAS DISCOVERED IN A classroom at Springfield High School in Springfield, Pa. The body was slumped over a lab table, and gun shell casings were scattered on the floor next to a pool of blood. It was the latest in a series of crimes at the school, all of them suspiciously occurring in the science classrooms of JoAnn Kovatch and Janet Barber.

When 18-year-old Robert Smythe and other students arrived on the crime scene, they carefully surveyed the grim surroundings—and got down to work. Armed with notebooks, digital cameras and tape measures, they ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and set out to find clues to solve the murder.


Welcome to the high school version of the popular crime scene television show, CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation . The Springfield High course helps students learn a host of crime scene investigation techniques, and is one of the new science elective classes that are rapidly taking hold in schools across the country.


“This class is the most interesting one I’ve ever taken,” says Smythe, a senior who wants to pursue law enforcement as a career. “Everyone enjoys it.”

The popularity of the CSI television series has spawned the growth of forensic classes in many high schools and some middle schools. In these classes, students learn the elements of biology, chemistry, physics and some math as they dust for fingerprints, analyze blood, examine hair samples and learn about ballistics.

To emulate the CSI show, during which forensics specialists investigate and solve crimes, teachers create fake crime scenes with ketchup serving as blood, and they cajole other teachers into playing the role of suspects and murderers as part of the curriculum. The classes are so popular that some teachers are turning away students, and some schools have to increase the number of forensic science classes taught each semester.

In an era when high school students’ science and math scores are declining, anything that gets America’s youth interested in learning is a plus, educators point out. These classes help students develop critical thinking skills, learn forensics skills and explore a potential career.

“This class is real-world science,” explains Nita Nicholie, a science teacher at St. Joseph High School, in St. Joseph, Mich. “Even if these students never become forensic scientists, they will become more educated citizens and more scientifically literate, which are goals we as science teachers strive to achieve.”

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit. Teachers say these classes breathe new life into their careers as they learn forensic science and create their classes from scratch. Teachers enjoy the ingenuity required to develop murder mysteries, while students learn to think creatively by sifting through evidence and then putting together the pieces of a crime-scene puzzle.

“It sounds daunting, but it’s fun,” says Kerry Christian, a teacher at the Fred J. Carnage Gifted & Talented Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, N.C. “Every time I teach forensics, I have to change it. I can’t have the same crime scene or the same murderer, or word gets around the school. The challenge and creativity are enjoyable.”

Focus on the Science

Because forensic science often deals with violent acts, teachers must be aware that some students might feel squeamish about the crime-scene aspect, says Christian, who teaches sixth- to eighth-graders, but limits her forensic science classes mostly to eighth-graders.

As long as teachers focus on the science, rather than the blood and gore, students will be fine, St. Joseph’s Nicholie says. In fact, she doesn’t show the CSI series episodes in class because she worries that they may be too graphic. When she and her colleagues create crime scenes, there is no body. They use masking tape to draw a body outline instead.

“You need to be sensitive to whether this might bother a student,” Nicholie cautions. She suggests that teachers should “approach it from a scientific perspective.”

The CSI courses at Springfield High School were developed two years ago when administrators asked the science staff to create new elective classes. Science teachers Kovatch and Barber offered to teach forensic science. Once the course was approved, they had five months to become experts.

The two colleagues grew up as Nancy Drew fans and enjoy the CSI shows, so the subject intrigued them. To create the curriculum, they used college textbooks and online materials, and they attended conferences sponsored by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. “We taught ourselves,” Barber says.

Kovatch, whose school now offers three forensics classes each semester, advises teachers to take their time and be patient. “Look at college books and take the material that’s appropriate for your students,” she says.

Kovatch suggests that new forensic science teachers start by incorporating forensic science into existing biology, chemistry and physics classes. Teachers who decide to teach a full semester of forensic science must immerse themselves in the subject, she says.

It’s critical for teachers to have a genuine interest in forensics, adds Christian of the Fred J. Carnage school. Instructors must conduct intense research and know the material inside and out. Otherwise, students are quick to point out procedures that they may have learned from TV.

“If you don’t have an interest, you won’t be as involved in doing the background research,” she says. “You have to make it as realistic as possible. Learn the jargon and the techniques and see how it’s really done, or else the kids will call you on it.”

Start With the Basics

Springfield’s Kovatch and Barber start the class by teaching students the background of forensic science and how techniques such as fingerprinting have been used throughout history.

“We start by saying forensics did not begin five years ago with the TV shows,” Kovatch says. “This is something that has happened for hundreds of years.”

St. Joseph’s Nicholie teaches the basics of forensics, including dusting for fingerprints, examining footprints and conducting chemical analyses of unknown substances left at crime scenes. She even teaches students how to analyze the spatter of blood.

Based on the blood pattern, for example, students can determine the velocity and distance the blood traveled, and whether the blood came from a large artery or from a slow leak, she explains. All that data can help determine how a crime was committed.

After teaching the basics, forensics teachers spend a big part of the semester creating crime scenes for students to investigate. At the Fred J. Carnage school, Christian recently set up a crime scene in which the victim was strangled. She scattered 22 pieces of evidence throughout a room and told students that all the teachers in the immediate vicinity were suspects.

Students in Christian’s class are given one week to process a crime scene and catalog evidence, and three weeks to determine what happened to the victim. They are divided into groups of sketch artists, photographers, tape measurers, evidence markers and note takers.

The students take photos and use measuring tapes to determine the distances between the body and pieces of evidence. That’s important later when they try to reconstruct the crime. “Crime scenes don’t last forever,” Christian points out.

The students fingerprint suspects and conduct handwriting analyses. To make sure they find the right suspect, Christian usually plants evidence, such as a glove or fake poison, at the crime scene, and then she plants a second glove or more poison in the suspect’s classroom. When students zero in on a suspect, she teaches them to fill out a search warrant, then they go to the teacher’s room and make an arrest.

“I’ve prearranged certain pieces of evidence, so when students find the evidence they are looking for, they’re 99.9 percent sure it’s that person,” she says. “Then we knock on the teacher’s door and arrest the teacher.”

Counting Costs

Forensics teachers say class costs aren’t exorbitant. They use digital cameras and microscopes. Christian connects her microscopes to computers and monitors, so students can compare fingerprints and pieces of animal hair and human hair on a large screen.

Scientific supply companies sell forensics kits for school classes. These include fingerprinting kits, hair analysis labs and simulated blood typing kits, which allow students to compare fake blood samples from suspects to those found at a crime scene.

At St. Joseph’s, Nicholie uses a kit of fake bones that teaches students how to determine a person’s age and gender. Nicholie also purchased software that allows students to draw up pictures of suspects.

“You can make it work on a limited budget,” Springfield’s Kovatch says, adding, “We’ve learned to be creative.” Her school district pays for some supplies, and community members donate materials, such as dental stone, which can be used to create casts of teeth, tire prints and more.

If students are interested in crime scene investigations, schools might as well capitalize on it, adds Christian of Fred J. Carnage school. Ultimately, forensic science fosters a love of science and helps students with their critical thinking skills.

“Forensics is excellent in building their deductive reasoning,” she says. “If you teach them how to think at a higher level, they will excel in all areas.”

Wylie Wong is a veteran technology reporter and co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone? about San Francisco Giants players of the past.

Forensics 101

Want to teach forensic science, but need to learn the subject quickly? Here are some steps that will help.

Attend workshops. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, in conjunction with Louisiana State University and Court TV, is holding a forensic science conference for middle school and high school science teachers this November. Scientific supply companies that sell forensics materials to schools also provide training sessions.

Surf the Web. Court TV has created a forensic science Web site for teachers and students: www.courttv.com/forensics%5Fcurriculum/.

Use crime scene investigators. Have them visit the school and give a lecture. Or take a field trip to their offices.

Read textbooks. Some suggestions include: Crime Scene Investigations: Real-Life Science Labs For Grades 6-12, Pam Walker and Elaine Wood, published by Jossey-Bass; The Forensic Casebook: The Science of Crime Scene Investigation, Ngaire E. Genge, published by Ballantine Books; The Casebook of Forensic Detection: How Science Solved 100 of the World’s Most Baffling Crimes, Colin Evans, published by Wiley.