How Forensic Science can Make High School Science more Interesting

In classrooms around the world, one of the first questions that students frequently ask of teachers who have just introduced a new topic is, “Why do we need to know this?”  It behooves a good teacher to have in his or her educational arsenal some ready responses to this question in order to take advantage of the learning opportunity and to captivate further the minds of interested students by giving them genuine, practical, and pertinent answers to their most reasonably asked questions.

Enter the Television Age, which since the 1950s has babysat baby-boomers and three generations of their children for many hours each week.  Currently and according to Sheila H. Troppe of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, the typical graduating high school student will have spent 20,000 or more hours watching television as opposed to the 15,000 hours they will have spent in the classroom.  Teachers can use this unfortunate phenomenon as a most fortunate educational opportunity since their students are already watching television for an average of 30 or more hours each week anyway.

All teachers, but Science teachers including Mathematics teachers (with Mathematics being the Mother of all Science) in particular, should find educational utility in relating material in their Science curricula to examples of scientific concepts given in many television programs (in current TV programming and in re-runs) in which Forensic Science plays a dominant role. 

Some of the more popular Forensic Science television dramas over the years have included:  Quincy M.E. (The first from 1976-1983), Crossing Jordan (2001-2007), the three CSIs (Las Vegas, Miami, and New York spin-offs; 2000 to present), Da Vinci’s Inquest (1998-2005; CBC Canada), NCIS (especially the Ducky and Abby segments; 2003 to present), Rizzoli and Isles (2010 to present), Cold Case (2003-2010), and Numb3rs (2005-2010) to name just a few.

Now we have “Bones” (2005 to present) where each week on FOX Television Network and with a soap opera sub-plot, the stoic Anthropological Forensic Scientist,  Dr. Temperance Brennan “Bones” and her team of top-notch scientific experts at the Jeffersonian Institution, solve the most horrific of crimes by studying the goriest of decomposing human remains during the 8 PM supper hour.

As humankind’s use of computers and the Internet has grown, so has the amount of crime and the potential for new crimes.  Nearly every police and crime drama on television has one or more resident computer “geeks” on their investigation teams and forensics units.  Abby and McGee on NCIS and Penelope on Criminal Minds are among such TV computer wizards.  Teachers of Computer Science and IT Technology should know how to relate these popular and charismatic TV characters and their work to practical applications within their IT curricula and daily lesson plans.

Some excellent non-dramatic television series demonstrating science and scientific concepts through forensics include Investigative Reports (A&E), Secrets of the Dead (PBS), Forensic Files (Court TV), History’s Crimes and Trials (History Channel), The New Detectives (Discovery Channel), Secrets of Forensic Science (The Learning Channel), and Cold Case Files (A&E). 

Many archaeological and physical anthropological investigations around the world employ the techniques of forensic science.  Any television show where Dr. Zahi Hawass or other Egyptologists exhume mummies and try to piece together the stories of their lives and times involves various forensic science principles and techniques from which science teachers can draw examples relating to their science curriculum and to the interests of students. 

Nearly all police and crime dramas, whether forensics is a major component or not,  now pay greater attention to Forensic Science as it has become an integral and interesting aspect of criminal investigations in TV mysteries, police dramas, and reality crime series as well as in the Real World itself.  

Symbolic of this phenomenon, real-life and TV police investigators everywhere now wear latex gloves and carry evidence bags as standard operating procedures to prevent contaminating the scientific forensic evidence.  This concept alone opens the door for science teachers to share the secrets and teach the methods of Aseptic Technique and Chain of Custody for collecting, handling, and transferring laboratory specimens. 

These and similar skills have immediate practical value for students because numerous jobs and careers from part-time science technicians to Ph.D. scientists in many fields (as well as MDs and RNs) use these basic forensic techniques on a daily basis.  Environmental Science is just one such growing career field where aseptic sample collection and proper specimen documentation and transfer skills are indispensable.

When we hear the word forensics, our thoughts may tend to migrate towards gory scenes of bloody mutilated corpses, decomposing cadavers ravaged by scavengers and insects, body farms, and human remains on autopsy tables with their characteristic V-shaped incisions closed by neat rows of stainless steel staples. 

All of this horrific and macabre carnage shown on TV is, however, only a small part of Forensic Science.  Nevertheless, it is the part of forensics that initially and instinctively seems to captivate the minds of middle school and high school students.  For many young people, how “gross” something is correlates highly with its entertainment value as well as with their personal and collective interests. 

The popularity of the “Grossology” book series by Sylvia Branzei is a scientifically accurate testament to this phenomenon and hence serves as a potential source of “edutainment” and some disgusting background ideas to help teachers relate all things forensic, scientific, and gross to their students.

Video games presenting criminalistics and forensic science are beginning to appear on the market with increasing popularity among young people.  If a math or science teacher can help a student to learn anything useful from any of this death and gore and slime and crime, he or she should.  Again, their students and their families are already watching it on television, reading it in books, and playing around with it in video games anyway.

Forensics and Forensic Science are not just branches of Law Enforcement and the Science of Criminology; they serve and support ALL aspects of the Law and related legal matters including mathematically based investigations that are more of statistics and graphs than of shallow unmarked graves.

The science of Forensic Mathematics, which includes the fields of statistics and probability, predicts the probability of when, where, and how certain crimes might occur or where a particular criminal might strike next.  Math and science teachers should use this important aspect of criminal investigation and crime prevention to bring their subjects and curricula to life for their students.

Forensic Psychology looks at behavioral characteristics in relation to the law in order to characterize or profile unknown subjects (unsubs) and groups of criminals with similar modus operandi (modes of operation; MOs) such as rapists, burglars, murderers, and serial killers.  Teachers of psychology, sociology, health, and human biology might serve their students well by demonstrating how science and medicine use forensic principles of behavior to make predictions about criminals and crime, to commit dangerous people to mental hospitals, and to solve problems regarding human behavior. 

Biologists, Earth scientists, environmental scientists, chemists, farmers, and medical practitioners of all kinds use many of the principles employed in forensic science every day.  High school science teachers of Biology, Health, Earth Science, Chemistry, and others should examine their curricula and lesson plans to determine when, where, and how they might use and relate the principles of forensic science to and between the various academic disciplines for their students.  

DNA is the basis for the origin and perpetuation of all life as we know it and the understanding of this fascinating helical polymer of nucleic acids is fundamental to all of Biology.  Advances in DNA technology have revolutionized forensic science over the past few decades.  New DNA evidence has freed innocent and wrongly accused convicts.  Further, DNA technology has identified guilty perpetrators of long cold crimes; and it is much more precise and reliable than fingerprints or eyewitnesses.   

Ordinary people can now mail in a cheek cell DNA swab, and for a small fee, learn about their genealogical ancestry through Genetic Genealogy going back in their family trees to the most ancient of times.  This has implications not only for health and science teaching, but for history and social studies as well.

Science teachers should use numerous examples from forensic science to beef up their lesson plans, to reinforce curricula, to relate their subject matter to other subjects, to introduce possible career choices, and to answer their students’ most important question…

“Why do we need to know this?”

For Further Reading:

Guzzetti, Barbara.  2009. Thinking Like a Forensic Scientist: Learning With Academic and Everyday Texts.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53(3).  November 2009.  International Reading Association.  (pp. 192–203).