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Dead body

Our First Dead Body for the CSI Class

My trip to the NSTA conference in San Francisco came right in the middle of our Intersession period at Walden School of Liberal Arts. The most difficult time of the school year is the stretch from Presidents’ Day through Spring Break. The weather is still too nasty in Utah to do very much outside, and so most students (and teachers) get a little stir crazy with cabin fever. I call this period of time “The Doldrums.”

At Walden School, we break out of the doldrums by putting a two-week Intersession period at the end of the third term, with specialty classes that are high-interest and out of the ordinary. I teamed up with Eric Beecroft, our social science teacher, to create a Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) class that combined parts forensic science, criminology, psychology, and electronic data collection.

Photographing the scene

Photographing the crime scene

We started on Monday, March 7 with a general class meeting to go over the requirements, set up teams, and train them in group communication skills. I used an exercise I had written up years ago while a master’s student in organizational behavior at Brigham Young University (I’ve been through a few career changes). It has groups of six students solve a murder mystery aboard the Carob Bean Queen. Each student receives a sheet of paper that has a description of the crime and suspects, but what they don’t know is that each paper is slightly different and has information that will clear one suspect. The only way to solve the crime is to cooperate and communicate as a group to pool their information.

On the second day, we had a volunteer made up to look like a dead body and I planted evidence in a field just south of our school. It had snowed the night before, but this day the sun came out and melted the snow, leaving ideal conditions for footprints. I carefully set up the evidence, with various shoes used to represent the  suspects. I had another student dress up as a homeless person pulling a cart through the field (to leave some unusual tracks). We planted fake ID cards, bullet casings, hair and fiber samples, and I even had the butcher at a local supermarket same me some beef blood which I splashed liberally around the scene (so we could test for blood using hydrogen peroxide).

Taping the scene

Taping off the crime scene

While I was planting the evidence, the students were watching a presentation by the medical examiner’s office. She brought slides. After she was done, the students came out in groups (the lead detectives and photographers first) to document, collect, and catalog the evidence. We even did plaster casts of some of the footprints, although a batch of plaster was ruined because the students let it set up too much before trying to pour it into the footprints. Despite our warning to watch where they walked, most of my carefully laid footprints were trampled by the investigators. They could have solved the crime just by carefully looking at the footprints and drag marks, but fortunately we had other lines of evidence. As it was, it took them a couple of days to realize that there was a missing person in addition to the dead body. The second victim was finally “found” some distance away on Friday.

Cataloging evidence

Cataloging the evidence

On Wednesday, the analysis of the evidence began as they looked at hair and fibers under the microscopes and started testing for blood, checking fingerprints and lip prints, and trying to put it all together. Meanwhile, other teams were looking at paper evidence (ID cards and documents) and electronic evidence. We had even created fake Facebook accounts, travel tickets, bank records, etc. Most of this was to point to various suspects and leave some red herrings to confuse the issue. Those suspects were brought in on Wednesday and Thursday for interviews and fingerprinting. I had to leave after an hour on Wednesday because I had to get to the airport for the NSTA conference.

On Monday, once I returned to Utah, we finished analyzing the evidence and I made sure the students understood the ideas of criminology and burden of proof, such as motive, means, and opportunity as well as keeping a tight chain of custody of evidence. Some evidence had to be thrown out because it had not been put away properly while I was gone. On Tuesday we summarized our findings, recommended a suspect be arrested, held a mock arraignment for that suspect, and tested the students on their participation.

Analyzing the evidence

Analyzing the evidence

If I were to rate this, my first attempt to teach a forensic science class, I would have to say it went well. Some of the students weren’t as helpful or worked as hard as they could have (they had to be told what to do and where to go instead of taking initiative). We had less of this than I feared we would, due mostly to setting up careful roles and team memberships at the beginning and choosing some responsible students as Lead Detectives, who could then keep the other students focused. Our greatest problem was that the students worked out the culprit too quickly and we had to throw out some additional evidence to keep them guessing. The comments I’ve heard since are that the students had fun and enjoyed the activity. We had a fairly large group for Walden (about 22 students in both junior high and high school) so it was a challenge to have meaningful tasks for all of them all of the time.

I think this went well enough, and there was enough science and analysis involved, that I might try to teach a whole semester course in forensic science at some future time.

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The Mosser Hotel

The Mosser Hotel, San Francisco

The last two weeks have been crazy busy as our third term has ended, our Intersession classes have begun, and I’ve prepared to travel to San Francisco for the National Science Teachers Association Conference.

During Intersession our history teacher at Walden School (Eric) and I have put together a CSI class, coming up with a scenario, clues, evidence, witnesses, etc. On the first day, we trained the students what to expect and divided them into groups, including three students to be lead detectives. I also ran them through my old “Murder on the Carob Bean Queen” activity, where they must solve a paper mystery that requires group collaboration. On Tuesday we planted the evidence, including a very well made up dead body, multiple sets of footprints, and various physical clues. I even got some beef blood from the local supermarket and splattered it over the scene (getting quite a bit on myself – I was a bit overenthusiastic on how I smacked the container). While I was doing this, Eric had the students inside with a guest lecturer from the medical examiner’s office. She brought slides. I was glad to miss it. Then we took the students outside to the crime scene and had them collect the evidence. They did pretty well, except they only got two footprints cast, the rest of the prints either being ignored or obliterated as the team walked all over the scene. Wednesday we started cataloguing and analyzing the evidence, as witnesses started to come forward and the crime started shaping up.

Lobby of the Mosser

Lobby of the Mosser Hotel, San Francisco

At the same time, I was busily getting my bags packed, last minute changes on the presentations ready (including quick videos of Cripple Creek and my students’ chemistry demonstrations), and all the details done that must be done.

On Wednesday afternoon, I flew on a small Skywest Puddle Jumper from Salt Lake to SFO. I sat by a pre-teacher from Louisiana State, behind two other teachers, and they behind yet another teacher, all going to the conference. There must have been quite a few more on the same plane. We teachers are quite the gregarious bunch.

The plane flight was uneventful, and in between chatting with the other teachers I watched an episode of Star Trek Enterprise on my laptop. There’s just something oddly fulfilling about watching Star Trek on a laptop computer while flying at 35,000 feet. We had a nice view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from the air as we circled around to land. I rode into San Francisco on a SuperShuttle van with yet more teachers to the Mosser Hotel. I selected the Mosser because it is inexpensive (about $60 per night, which is really good for a San Fran hotel). The drawbacks are the tiny rooms and shared bathrooms, but the beds are comfortable and the hotel staff friendly. After settling in, I walked over to the Moscone Center and picked up my registration packet. I found a Mexican restaurant in the Metreon, and sat with a teacher named Matt who teaches in an ex-patriot school in Bangladesh. We had an interesting conversation about the challenges of teaching in a country with such severe poverty and population issues; he tried to paint a picture of just how terrible the traffic is, for instance, and how prone to disasters of every sort the country is.

San Francisco skyline

San Francisco Skyline from the Moscone Center

After dinner, I returned to the hotel and crashed. It was a long day, and tomorrow will be very eventful. I present the Elements Unearthed project, and I have a reception to go to where I’ll receive a “major award” (although not from France or in a box marked “Fragilé”). Just thought I’d end on a note of suspense . . . .

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