There's been a murder in Fort Myers, Florida, and Marilyn Slusher's gumshoes are on the case. Some are searching for fingerprints. Others are looking for clues. Later, the rookies will size up bones to learn the gender of the victim.
Slusher's detectives are her students at Fort Myers Middle Academy; the crime a set-up designed to hook kids on science. And it's working. In the five years since Slusher and math teacher Susie Bell began teaching forensics, “We've had so many 'a-ha!' moments,” Slusher reports. “Kids have gone on to do terrific science fair projects. Lots of kids have even said that they want to go into the field.”
Considering the shortage of would-be scientists, that's good news-and teachers are paying attention, relying on the popularity of TV shows like "CSI: Miami" to teach kids life science, chemistry, physics, math-even language arts-through the lens of forensics.
The criminal angle is not without its critics. Some parents worry about the gruesome scenarios. Experts wonder what message we're sending when crime is a part of the curriculum.
Yet teachers who've seen the benefits of using forensics say the subject can be taught responsibly-and produce great results. That's why we asked them for their advice in starting or improving a crime-scene class. Here are their tips for turning out a roomful of sleuths-who are thoughtful, investigative scientists, too.
Crime-Scene Secret #1: Take it One Clue at a Time There's no need to give your entire science curriculum a "Law & Order" makeover. Start with what you feel comfortable doing, which might be a few days of fun or an after-school project to test the waters. “Our program began as a stress reliever after the state tests,” says Slusher. “The first year we basically did fingerprinting.” Because it has been such a success, Slusher and Bell have expanded their unit every year since.
Erik Hein, an English teacher at Stetson Middle School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, seconds this start-small strategy. When science teacher Pam Gray asked him to collaborate on a murder mystery project eight years ago, it was just a fraction of the curriculum. “Now we have several forensics projects that span the whole school year,” he says.
Crime-Scene Secret #2: Have a Code of Conduct According to Carolyn Wolsiefer, who teaches forensics at Summit Middle School in Breckenridge, Colorado, ground rules can make all the difference in how your kids handle the material. For Wolsiefer, that means establishing forensics as no joking matter: Any of her students who treat it as such must find another class. (Wolsiefer has a waiting list for her very popular elective.) It sounds basic, but the level of respect that you establish-by talking as a group about crime statistics, or approaching labs as “real” forensic scientists-will determine the success of your unit with students and parents alike.
Of course, you may decide not to even get into the grisly (think Nancy Drew over "CSI"). Court TV has units just your speed at www.courttv.com. Everyone we spoke to loved this free resource.
Crime-Scene Secret #3: Lock Up the Standards From language arts to social studies to chemistry, it's possible to cross the whole curriculum using forensics-the trick is to target your learning goals so that it's not fun experiment after fun experiment without meeting any standards.
Hein ties forensics to his lessons on writing narrative, persuasive, and expository essays. After science teacher Gray finishes an experiment with the kids, Hein asks them to write about an aspect of the “crime” from the perspective of the detective, victim, scientist, or a lawyer. It's been such a success that Hein recently authored Partners in Crime: Integrating Language Arts and Forensic Science (Jossey-Bass, 2005).
Slusher and Bell, the other cross- curricular team, collaborate throughout their unit. Bell teaches kids how to triangulate the crime scene (a neat geometry activity) and measure the “bones” of the victim. Slusher handles the science, from fingerprinting to fiber analysis. The teamwork has paid off so well that Slusher recommends every would-be forensics teacher recruit a “cohort in crime” from another department.
Crime-Scene Secret #4: Don't Let TV Take Over While CSI's status as a number-one show may inspire your science class (not to mention spin-offs-there are more than 40 crime shows now on network and cable TV), it should by no means take center stage in the classroom, teachers agree. The content's just too adult and the scenarios too divorced from reality. Wolsiefer makes a point of stressing to her kids how different the work of forensic scientists is from what tanned actors do on TV-in real life, for example, most crimes aren't actually solved.
Which is not to say that there's no place for TV in the classroom. Wolsiefer shows several clips throughout the year-during her class on ballistics, for example-particularly from more accurate, documentary-style shows like "The Forensic Files" on Court TV and "Dr. G: Medical Examiner" on Discovery Health.
Crime-Scene Secret #5: Call in Enforcement Of course, nothing underscores the difference between real life and 60-minute fantasies like hearing from the men and women whose job it is to step behind the yellow tape. Forensics teachers agree that some of the best learning moments have taken place when they've stepped aside for guest speakers from the police department or district attorney's office. “The response from the community has been amazing,” says Hein, echoing a common sentiment. “Let's face it, most kids, especially boys, run when they see the cops,” he adds. “Who knows why, but when they see the police as people with similar interests and hobbies, it bridges the divide.” It's one more unexpected benefit from an unexpected subject.