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Students Digging Forensics

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Pink threads. Llama dung. A human skull in a shallow grave. Parts of an X-Files episode? No, just some of the "evidence" Somers (Connecticut) High School students found on campus and are analyzing to solve a mysterious "death." The investigation is the final project for students in a wildly popular forensics course that draws in other teachers and students and teaches students to work together and use multiple disciplines. Included: Tips for starting a forensics course at your school.

Just as television shows such as CSI and Discovery Channel specials hook audiences by showing how forensics can be used to solve murders, one Connecticut high school is using forensics to hook students into studying mathematics and science.

The four-year-old forensics course at Somers High School has become one of the school's most popular single-semester electives. For the final project, students work together to solve a "crime" by gathering "evidence" from the scene, analyzing it, applying for "warrants," and interviewing "witnesses."

"I was always interested in forensics from watching the X-Files," junior Katrina Veno said. "I realize now how you use it."

Instructor Mary Anne Butler, who is a science teacher and a lawyer, makes sure students follow real-world procedures, such as filling out paperwork, and learn the not-so-glamorous side of investigations. "I want them to understand this is not CSI, Butler told Education World. "Things are not wrapped up in 45 minutes. They need to understand that this is hard, tedious work."


A student studies a skull to try to determine the sex and approximate age of the "victim."
(Education World photo)
The class crime, concocted by Butler, has all the elements of a real-life mystery: a passerby stumbles across "human bones" in a shallow grave in the woods on the campus. The grave is decorated with flowers. "Blood" is spattered on a wooden footbridge. At another location, tire tracks, footprints, and llama droppings turn up. Empty shotgun shells and pink feathers and fibers also are found nearby, as are lottery tickets. After the discoveries, yellow police tape seals off the main crime scene.

Butler, who said it takes her about six hours to set up the crime scene, even plants evidence in her own car.

Other faculty members serve as witnesses or provide ... well ... color. On the day the pink feathers were discovered, a number of teachers wore pink clothing to school. One teacher even sported a pink feather boa.

Tips on Teaching Forensics

Somers (Connecticut) High School teacher Mary Anne Butler offers several tips for teachers and administrators interested in developing their own forensics courses or units:

* Start small. Instead of trying to launch an entire forensics course, begin by developing a unit for an existing class, such as physics.

* Tap into area resources. Contact fire and police departments, universities, and local or the state medical examiner's offices for curriculum advice and forms.

* E-mail questions to Butler at [email protected].

The investigation work taps into a number of disciplines. One of the first witnesses on the scene was the school's foreign language teacher, who offered testimony in Spanish. Students recorded her account and a student translated it.

Chemistry is used to test evidence; physics, to analyze the path of tire tracks; and trigonometry, to chart the trajectory of blood spatters found at the scene.

"It gives every kid with a different strength a chance to strut his or her stuff," Butler said.

"It's amazing how much you need science and math for [forensics]," added Steve Lockyer, a senior dusting empty shotgun shells for fingerprints.

Integrating skills is one of the most important aspects of the course. "Every kid in every classroom has at some time said, 'When am I going to need this?'" Butler pointed out. "This course answers that question. It opens students' eyes to the fact that the world is not compartmentalized. Even if they don't go into the [forensics] field, they probably will sit on a jury someday, and they will know how to differentiate evidence."

Connecticut state trooper Craig Murray, the high school's resource officer, said the realism of the course impressed him. "This is pretty much what we do in different areas, and it helps the students work together," Murray told Education World. "Now they know what to do if they ever encounter [real] evidence."


Students process evidence during the forensics class.
(Education World photo)
Before doing the hands-on investigation, students spend about 16 weeks in the classroom, learning about different aspects of forensics and anthropology, such as analyzing bone structure and processing a crime scene. Lessons include measuring and analyzing bones to determine the age and sex of a person.

"I didn't realize how much you can find out from so little," senior Kristine Anderson said about analyzing evidence.

Students usually solve the mystery, according to Butler. Previous crimes have included the accidental electrocution of the Stay-Puff marshmallow man.


The school launched the course and several other electives with real-life connections to interest non-college-bound students in math and science, Butler said. Forensics has proven to be the most popular of those courses. "This has blown everyone away," she noted.

The recent nationwide fascination with forensics may have helped course enrollment as well, Butler observed. "But we were doing it before the explosion in forensics on the airwaves."

In putting the course together, Butler sought help -- and continues to seek input -- from such local and state agencies as the fire department, Connecticut State Police, the state medical examiner's office, and local insurance companies -- which often review crime scene materials related to claims. Some of the offices provided forms for students to use and gave the class tours of their facilities.

School principal David Lynch said he thinks the positive student response to the course has to do with interest in the subject matter and the "enthusiasm and passion of the teacher."


Teachers Mary Anne Butler (right) and Louise Audette (left) help a student in a math class.
(Education World photo)
Butler and math teacher Louise Audette received a $10,000 Toyota TIME grant to plan for expanding the course to a full year by fall 2003 and connect it with an advanced math class. School officials also have received calls from other Connecticut administrators interested in offering a similar course, according to Butler.

Although courses in forensics may seem controversial to some people, Butler and Lynch said there have been no complaints that the school is glamorizing crime from Somers parents or community members.

"How could anyone say we are glamorizing crime?" Butler asked. "We are using math and science to catch bad guys."