Crime scene science in a high school lab

In class, crime scene science

Forensics: Howard County students learn real science by studying contrived crime scenes.

Donna W. Payne

Special To The Sun

December 03, 2003

The door of Terri Bradford's classroom at River Hill High School was surrounded by yellow tape carrying an alarming notice: "Crime Scene - Do Not Enter." Inside, busy investigators were using the latest techniques to look for fingerprints.

But this was no nefarious incident of unlawful deeds. Instead, the investigators were River Hill forensics students engaged in a novel type of science lab, one that teaches the type of investigative techniques that the students have seen on popular TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

And a common opinion among the students is that forensics is fun.

"Pretty much everyone in the class loves CSI, so it's like we get to do all the cool stuff we see, and we learn about it," said senior Jenny Vanyur.

Her lab partner agreed. "I just think the neat part is watching CSI and understanding what they're saying. Like all the mumbo jumbo they're saying - we understand it," said senior Jenna Blair.

River Hill High, along with Long Reach and Atholton high schools, were the first in Howard County to offer forensics - starting last year - as an elective science course, said Bonnie Luepkes, science and forensics teacher at Atholton, and the Maryland PTA's Educator of the Year. Glenelg, Howard, Mount Hebron and Wilde Lake high schools added forensics to its science electives this year, and other county high schools are considering offering the course, Luepkes said.

The curriculum was written by Luepkes, Glenelg forensics teacher Rebecca Blackwell and former Long Reach science teacher Linda Davis. Luepkes, Blackwell and Long Reach forensics teacher Shannon Miller revised the curriculum last summer.

"It's real-world science," Bradford said, and "lab-intensive." Students in her classes measure how blood spatters or is tracked on shoes, substituting tomato juice or diluted red paint for blood. They learn to detect and identify fingerprints and to perform a DNA analysis. They also do a "virtual autopsy," using an interactive computer program.

Bradford said her students will also enter a contest sponsored by cable channel Court TV that explores new forensic evidence related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In a recent fingerprint lab, Bradford conducted a warm-up session in which the students answered questions on how to classify fingerprints. Then they donned long, black, rubber aprons, goggles and gloves and, working in pairs, tried out three techniques to make latent (invisible) fingerprints visible.

Students rubbed their noses with one of their fingers and then wiped the fingers on pieces of filter paper. After placing the papers in heated jars containing a dab of Super Glue or a few crystals of iodine, or spraying the paper with a dye, the students were able to see the whorls, arches and swirls of their fingerprints as white, brown or purple imprints.

The beginning of the exercise elicited a variety of comments: "Let's solve the crime." "Where's the Super Glue?" "I'm not sure it's reacting." And, "I have no idea how it's supposed to look."

But as the prints began to appear, the satisfaction was evident: "Oh, yeah! That looks good!" and "That's awesome!"

Senior Nicole Pettit wondered whether the iodine technique would show her fingerprint that included makeup from her nose. She was gratified when the brown-colored print appeared. "This is the most fun class I've taken. You get to do ... stuff that actually involves the real world" Pettit said.

"I think forensics is sort of like a pulling-together of all the sciences that [the students have] learned," Blackwell said, adding that they discover the necessity of reliable, convincing data for any scientific study, through learning about the importance of having well-researched information in order to defend forensics evidence in court.

Forensics is one of several applied-science classes that Howard schools now offer to ignite student interest in science, Luepkes said. "It's really a nationwide goal to get the students turned back onto science," she said.

And while Luepkes said she always encourages her students to take the standard biology, chemistry and physics classes that competitive colleges and educated students need, there is no doubt in her mind that practical courses such as forensics teach plenty of solid science.

She said students learn the principles of physics when they study how blood spatter patterns vary when dropped at different angles, or how broken glass diffracts light. They learn biology through blood-typing, DNA analysis and hair-fiber analysis; about geology with soil studies; and about chemical principles when learning how a Breathalyzer measures alcohol in the bloodstream.

"It's fun, and you still learn a whole lot," said River Hill senior Jennifer Sharp. "It's like I've never had a science course [before this] that I actually liked."

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