Most students are aware of forensic science due to its high profile in the popular media. Shows like “CSI” and “Bones” feature crime-solving scientists using real world methods and technologies in their pursuit of the truth, while high-rating documentary series such as “Forensic Files” (originally called “Medical Detectives”) also portray forensic science in a meaningful and attractive light. Although there is some degree of dramatic license in shows like these, they do offer viewers – including students – an engaging look at science in action.
Teachers can use this popular awareness to their advantage by designing courses which allow students the chance to conduct their own experiments and investigations in order to ‘solve’ fictional crimes. As the students develop their interest in science as a practical and exciting subject, they will be learning to better understand laboratory and data collection techniques, the processes of scientific research and the relationship between science and technology.
There are many simple experiments that students can perform that have relevance to their everyday lives. While the TV shows tend to focus on horrendous murders, high school science teachers can design investigations that are based on such things as locker break-ins, bullying incidents, forged documents, and traffic accidents. Related experiments can have students lifting and analysing fingerprints, looking closely at blood splatter patterns and discovering the secrets of DNA through analysis of hair or blood samples. Further experiments could focus on bite marks, soil analysis or an examination of fibres from furniture or clothing, and for students interested in bugs, a brief course in forensic entomology will be an attention-grabber.
Experiments such as these are easily conducted in a typical high school lab and nearby locations. They give students a hands-on way of finding out about chemistry, physics and biology while teaching basic principles of research and analysis. Although not all the work will be based on practical activities, teachers may find that students are more willing to read and inquire in order to support their investigations. As forensic science increasingly finds its place in high school courses, a plethora of textbooks and online resources are being created to support student learning. Forensic webquests, in particular, can offer students a structured way to learn the facts behind the work of real-life crime scene investigators.
Beyond all this is an important moral component to using forensic science in the classroom. It can teach students a great deal about the folly of crime, and give them a sense that the forces of law and order are smart, persistent and good. The study of forensics can help to develop responsible citizens by allowing them to work collaboratively on meaningful projects, and by preparing them for the possibility of jury duty.
Forensic science offers teachers the chance to engage their students in hands-on learning that is fun and relevant, and which is rewarded by a careful analysis of data. It is pure science that many students will be familiar with from their enjoyment of popular TV programmes. For a few students, this meeting of science and drama will result in a flash of intense satisfaction, when on watching a show like CSI they suddenly realise, “Hey, I can do that too!”