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Primary Education News
News Forensic science: how to turn your classroom into a CSI lab
Help your pupils solve a murder mystery using little more than papier mâché and the contents of your school science cupboard
For nearly four years now, I've had innumerable conversations over morning coffee with teachers who are under immense pressure to follow a restrictive science curriculum. The rigid emphasis on standardised assessment from the early years foundation stage to A-levels seems to get in the way of inquiry based learning, which is too often met with cynicism.
This extraordinary challenge has popularised forensic science in the classroom: it's uniquely poised to situate biology, chemistry and physics in a broader, interdisciplinary framework. In one of the most successful events I helped run with educational organisation, Forensic Outreach, the class at the American School of Paris studied bullet trajectories by grappling with Newton's laws, differentiated ecological samples by analysing soil acidity and sequenced DNA from trace evidence.
The public's fascination with all things CSI - on television, film and in published works - is another unquestionable advantage in creating a compelling story for students walking alien scientific terrain.
From murder mysteries to Q&As with crime scene investigators, here are some ideas on how to introduce forensic science into your own classrooms:
Hold a murder mystery or create a crime scene
Forensic science lends itself to compelling scenarios: a mock-murder investigation in which three teachers might be implicated in the homicide of a headteacher, a mysterious body unearthed from the campus schoolyard or a priceless personal effect which has disappeared from an older student's bag.
Choose a scenario which directly complements specific unit aims. For example, if you're teaching with BTEC in science-grading criteria you would emphasise theory. A relevant practical we run, tailored to the applied science unit in criminology, uses published data on crime hot spots and invites students to determine whether these figures confirm prevailing theories.
In other situations, you could emphasise the development of soft skills, such as critical thinking and collaborative work. The practical component of our lecture on the body farm - a research laboratory where human decomposition is studied - ends with a classroom debate on the ethical issues involved in building such a facility.
For ideas on forensic-themed activity plans, check out truTV's 'Forensics in the Classroom' programme and the Smithsonian Institution's Written in Bone (a history-science crossover resource). You can get hold of microscopic hair or fibre analysis kits, available from science resource Carolina.
Day-long activities give you time to conduct an entire homicide investigation with multiple hands-on activities. Stage a crime scene in an unfamiliar school office and plant the material to be analysed by students during your activity sessions. An initial evidence collection walk-through gives students the opportunity to recover and package soil samples, find fingerprints left on glasses and even discover DNA evidence (Bio-Rad provide a brilliant kit). These can then be examined later in the day.
The resources you'll need and where to find them
Take stock of the equipment in the cupboard - you'll often be surprised at what is already available in the science technician's room. This approach keeps expenses low.
Props like crime scene suits, which students wear before entering your staged scene, and crime scene tape are best ordered through supplier of forensic science materials. They're considerably less expensive than last-minute excursions to the hardware store, especially if you want to run the event annually. Some items, such as laminate fabric non-disposable suits, can be reused.
Enlist the art department to construct a papier mâché body with younger art classes. The fake corpse can be positioned at the crime scene or even buried on campus to be excavated using basic archaeological methods.
Finally, community support officers are often keen to discuss their role as first responders to a crime scene. In isolated cases, you might be able to request a visit from a crime scene officer (evidence collection specialists). To schedule a visit for an informal Q&A session, you should consult your local police department's website and make a general enquiry. Due to the nature of their work, however, you should prepare an alternative activity in case your officer is called away at the last minute.
Provide practical supplementary material
Every practical should be accompanied by an information pack for students containing a brief summary of the experiment, including the purpose of the analysis and any beneficial conceptual diagrams, as well as a step-by-step experimental methodology.
A summary ensures that young scientists can regularly refer to the overall aim of the day's investigation. Conceptual diagrams are particularly useful in physics or maths themed lessons in which formulas might require some visual representation.
Outlining an experiment's methodology allows students to easily retrace their steps when a practical fails to produce accurate, or the hypothesised, results. It also serves as a measure for teachers and technicians to make sure each investigating group is obtaining similar results when evidence analysis is meant to implicate one suspect.
Posing discussion questions aimed at students one year higher than the pupils taking part in the activity can help in students grapple with unfamiliar and sophisticated scientific principles. We've found it works best when you've got plenty of time for detailed exploring, such as part of a day-long event.
Tie the event together with a closing activity
Where year groups are split into rotating teams, students may not have the opportunity to complete all practical exercises during the day. To get around this problem, hold a concluding assembly to give students an insight into the analyses conducted and data collected by their peers.
To start, briefly outline the story used to contextualise the event, then continue with group presentations in which findings are shared. A mock murder mystery, for instance, might require a quick survey of whether each group analysis points to one suspect. In a single classroom, a simple show of hands ensures differences in conclusions reached by other groups is kept to a minimum.
Shivani Lamba is the director of Forensic Outreach, an educational organisation which hatched from University College London's 'widening participating' programme in 2001 and retains an affiliation with the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. She tweets at @forensicfix.