Forensics is a favorite

Course: High school classes in forensic science are increasing, thanks in part to the popularity of crime scene investigation television shows.

April 24, 2005|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, science teacher Terri Bradford had to rely on textbooks and the traditional gear of lab biology and chemistry to grab the interest of her River Hill High School students.

Today, Bradford is known for her mock crime scene layouts - complete with fake corpses and bloody footprints in the classroom - as she teaches the applied science of forensics.

Bradford, who is part of a growing group of forensic science teachers in high schools across the country, uses real-life stories, equipment and guest speakers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as professional pathologists, to impart crime-solving lessons.

Nationally, classes in forensic pathology are increasing in popularity, buoyed by attention from hit television crime programs such as CSI. Nine of 11 high schools in Howard County offer forensic science classes.

River Hill introduced its first forensics class in 2002. Today, Bradford teaches three classses, and another will be added next year.

Such popularity at the high school level - and a boom in such programs in colleges - has guidance counselors and high school science teachers scrambling, said Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor of forensics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

"We get calls from all over the country," Kobilinsky said. "I spoke to about 150 high school guidance counselors looking to add forensic science classes."

River Hill's program began after Bradford attended a forensic science conference in 2001 in St. Louis, held by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a group composed of forensic specialists. The conference was attended by teachers and guidance counselors from throughout the nation seeking advice on adding forensics to their curriculum.

Bradford said that once students complete biology and chemistry classes, they have the option of studying forensic science.

The applied science uses parts of other sciences - physics is applied to analyze the angle of blood splatter, chemistry is applied to understand blood levels in the body with a breathalyzer. The biology aspect was illustrated in the biolab last week. Students analyzed DNA from fingerprints.

"It's a cool class," said Brendan Lester, 17, a junior. Television crime investigation programs "did get me interested in how they analyze crime scenes and how to use some problem-solving skills."

Not all the work is done in the classroom. Last week, forensic and biology classes had the opportunity to work with sophisticated equipment aboard a red-and-white mobile trailer parked on the high school parking lot.

The MdBioLab is an industry science lab that travels throughout the state, teaching high school teachers and students about bioscience. The lab is equipped with biology, chemistry and forensic science lab stations, specimens and other instructional science equipment.

A group of more than 30 biology students was working in the lab Thursday morning, analyzing protein samples. Other classes, such as the one taught by Bradford, studied DNA samples, making identifications through fingerprinting. Sarah Favinger and Katie Brophy, both freshmen, worked together, analyzing whether a prepared sample of protein had the characteristics of sickle-cell anemia.

"I think it's really exciting to get into a real lab situation outside of school," Sarah said. "I think [forensic science] is a fun science, more than just laws. ... I watch CSI and the Discovery Channel, and I think it's cool that we have the opportunity to understand what they do."

The two were not studying forensics, just the biology aspect of the applied science. But for students seeking a career in forensic pathology, a high school class can be a good introduction, Kobilinsky said. He said it is best for students to study biology, physics and chemistry before they delve into the science that combines them all.

And Bradford, who has spent many years teaching research sciences, sees the ripple effect of a course that combines elements of several different subjects. "I would encourage any school district to start one because it encourages more kids to study science," she said.

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