Forensics Day 5: #bloodyfriday

Yesterday was “Bloody Friday,” and goodness did we have fun with it.

We started off with a fake blood competition–students used this recipe (and added their own modifications) to make blood that looks the most real.

Then we looked at blood spatter patterns using this lab here in which we check out how the height the blood was dropped from, the surface that it’s dropped onto, the angle it’s dropped at, and the speed at which it was dropped affects how it looks. They got SO into it–I mean, who doesn’t love a mystery with a bit of blood in it?

We then ended the day with a Nobel Prize Winning Blood Typing Game and a Skype call with a Blood Analyst from the Medical Examiner’s Office in NYC.



Forensics Day 4

Could today have gone any better? I think not.

Morning: We started off the day with a visit from an FBI Special Agent who did demos with footprint casting, metallic latent fingerprint powder, blood collection, and blue light analysis, all sprinkled between his amazing stories about the crimes that he’s helped to analyze. It was neat to see the kids who had been “turned off” up until then finally get that light going in their eyes and see that the stuff we talk about in class is all relatable to the real world.

Afternoon: We then moved onto Ballistics in which we started off by talking about which kinds of guns there are out there and which kinds of bullets they emit, and then we did a “Where’s the Shooter?” Lab in which they needed to determine where the shooter was based on the height and size of the bullet hole (I had been handy with a drill and bored holes into blocks of wood.

Note for next time: do a mini-lesson on trig before this! There’s a lot of climbing and tracing strings (to demo the bullet path) in this lab, but there’s also some trig in calculating the angles and the length of the sides of a triangle to determine which shooter was responsible for the gunshot, and a lot of students looked relatively clueless (it must have been that winter break…).

Forensics Day 3

Yesterday I took the kids on my first ever field trip (as a teacher) to The Body Worlds Exhibit in NYC. The exhibit itself was awesome–the poses that they froze the bodies were amazing, and the sheer amount of bodies and organs that they had was cool too–smokers lungs were definitely the takeaways for the kids.

The one thing that struck me was the ages of the bodies. There was one spinal column with scoliosis which was really young (you could tell by the size of the hips). To think… that a death was caused so early by this disease… and that the parents wanted this body donated to science afterwards. #respect


Forensics Day 1

Here’s what happened on Day 1 of Forensics:

  • Starter: Survey–what do you know about forensics
  • Toast Post-It Activity Team Building
    1. post-it notes to make toast (inspired by this TED talk)
      1. first, everyone draws on post-its how they would make toast (1 step per post-it)
      2. get into small groups and introduce themselves to the group
      3. then, they place their post-its all together, and need to come up with the clearest explanation for how to make toast with their groups (in groups of 4)
      4. have them place all of this on the board
      5. how does this relate to forensics?
      6. get into a discussion of what all the different people in forensics do, and who they are, and what they do (have this be a diagram on the board)
  • Introductions and Syllabus: here I explained what this class was about and what we are going to be doing in this class
    1. twitter: we have a class Twitter account that the students will be posting to
    2. field trip forms: some students still needed to turn them in!
  • Tour of crime scene: I had a crime scene set up in the back of the classroom, and I showed the students what was in it, and what they needed to start thinking about as Forensic scientists
  • Crime scene pre-lab: they did a mini-webquest on what it means to approach a crime scene, how to take evidence, what kind of evidence to take, etc.
  • Investigating a crime scene lab: they needed to essentially document all of the evidence and the crime scene itself in sketched, pictures, etc. Super fun in hindsight.
  • Fingerprinting Mini-Lesson: I taught them briefly what fingerprints are and how to fingerprint someone else
  • Fingerprint Lab: they took their own fingerprints, did someone else, and collected latent fingerprints
    • they looooved this lab. I think they could have done it for the rest of the day. At the end of it, I had them make their own fingerprinting data base for their right thumb print, and then determine whos print is whos using that data base. They cracked the code pretty easily (it was alphabetical), but the idea of it was cool. Next year, I think I would add on a CODIS part to this as well and start to talk to them about how our fingerprinting system works and who gets fingerprinted and why and where this gets stored and what it can tell about you.
  • Time to work on mini-presentations: they’re going to be presenting a topic throughout either this week or next, so they took this time to make those presentations.

Here’s the main takeaway I got form Day 1: My attention span is short. Shorter than theirs. By the time they’ve started an activity, I’m like–are you done yet? I think it’s because I have this incessant need to entertain them–the make them enjoy all the 6 hours that they have with me. But the fact of the matter is that they’re going to zone out, because they’re only teenagers (heck, I still zone out all the time), and this is a class–not a circus.

I also learned that it’s really important to switch up spaces. Today we tried going to the library for the very last part of the day, and it was like–aaaaah. A different room. It was so much easier to work all of a sudden. But when I think back to my own college experience, I remember that whenever I studied, I would switch spaces every hour or so simply because the scenery got boring to me. I need to remember that for future days…

Art in Forensics

I was Googling “art in forensics” to get an image of x-rayed paintings, but a ton of other images came up that inspired me to take this forensics class in a new direction next year. I would love to do a day on Art in Forensics–often times, people only think of bodies when they think of forensics, but there are so many other disciplines that forensic science is used for as well.

Things I would include in this day:

  • How to draw a suspected person based on only the witnesses description (have students make sketched based on each others descriptions)

convict sketches.jpg

  • talk to a suspect sketcher (do these people work for the police or are they hired? hmmm….)
  • how to make a clay mold of a person’s face
    1. how to re-construct a model of a face that’s been badly misshapen


  • how artists age missing children (maybe read a case study of a missing child, and then look at all of the artists renditions of what they would look like at different ages as they grow up)

aged children.jpg

  • a field trip to an art museum to talk to a curator about how forensic science techniques are used to determine whether or not there are 2 paintings on a canvas, and to determine whether there are people in art, like those that were found in these Buddha statues:

forensic statue.jpg

Forensics Day 2

Right now I’m teaching this JTerm class, Forensics. Just to give you a background, JTerm is basically an intensive 2-week study of the same subject. In a nutshell, I see the same 17 students each day for a out 6 hours. I know, right? BUT I’m making the most of it.

You’re probably wondering why I’m starting with Day 2… well, that’s because after Day 1, I was drop. dead. exhausted. Literally went right from my car into my bed at 3pm. No joke.

So today was a much more chill day than Day 1–I tried to structure it so that it was more student-centered. Here was my To-Do list at the beginning of the day:

  1. Warm-Up activity: who can get the best latent fingerprint?
  2. Intro to Bodies and Autopsies presentation
  3. Intro to Decay
  4. Introduction to Autopsy video
  5. Virtual Autopsy
  6. Virtual Autopsy presentations
  7. Case of Sam Sheppard videos
  8. Case of Sam Sheppard presentations
  9. Bodies debrief
  10. Body worlds research
  11. Introduction to Hair and Fibers
  12. Hair and Fibers lab
  13. FBI 101
  14. Historical Crime Mini-Report (in library)
  15. Brainstorm questions for visiting police officer

Here’s what actually happened:

  1. Warm-Up activity: who can get the best latent fingerprint? (they loved this, and by the end, their latent fingerprinting skills were much better than in the beginning)
  2. Intro to Bodies and Autopsies presentation (student-led, also excellent)
  3. Intro to Decay  (Got spontaneously deleted because I didn’t want to gross them out too much directly after breakfast)
  4. Introduction to Autopsy video (turned out to be a part of their presentation–score!)
  5. Virtual Autopsy (students divided up into groups and each got one of these cases to figure out)
  6. Virtual Autopsy presentations (they were asked to present like a medical examiner–sex, age, and cause of death for the patient–these were OK. I found that they rushed through the results and didn’t get a lot of the medical terms)
  7. NEW ACTIVITY: I had them all write out their patients on whiteboards and then compare them: what did older people die of? what did younger people die of? This part I thought was really interesting, because you could definitely see that the older you get, the more likely you are to die of heart or lung failure complications.
  8. Case of Sam Sheppard videos
  9. Case of Sam Sheppard presentations
  10. These presentations became Case of Sam Shepard analysis using the documentation found here
    1. Some of the questions were a bit confusing to them, but overall I really liked that it portrayed just how flawed both the evidence collection and the trial was. The main point I tried to drive across at the end was that forensic science is not always as cut and dry as it is in the movies and on TV. Often times, the evidence tells us one thing, and the law leads us in a different direction, so a lot of cases are left unsolved*
  11. Bodies debrief (ran out of time)
  12. Body worlds research (ran out of time)
  13. NEW ACTIVITY: Body Worlds Introduction and view Body Worlds Video
  14. Introduction to Hair and Fibers (student-led, awesome)
  15. Hair and Fibers lab (students got SO into this–they were viewing each others hair, dog hair, follicles, medulla, so awesome)
  16. NEW ACTIVITY: I had them make a Fibers and Hair database–they took photos of all the different fibers and hair with their phones and then uploaded them to a common google doc, and labelled them with different magnifications–TOTALLY AWESOME
  17. Introduction to FBI (done by 2 students–this presentation was so awesome that it covered a lot of what I originally wanted them to do in FBI 101, so I changed that activity on the spot)
  18. FBI 101 (it was the end of the day and they were looking dead, but I had them look at the top 10 must wanted fugitives on the FBI website instead just to give them and idea of what kinds of crimes people were wanted for. This really got them interested–one student, whom had mostly just sat there the whole time, started talking a whole lot and showing all of his friends what he was seeing. I love those moments when you figure out what makes them tick.
  19. Brainstorm questions for visiting police officer: this was much easier to do here than at the end of the day because they already had the FBI and criminals on their mind
  20. Historical Crime Mini-Report (in library) (we needed to get out of the classroom. So I had them choose their own groups, choose a major case in history, and then research it.
  21. End of the day. Phew!

In hindsight, this was a very computer-centered day–they were doing a lot of back and forth with the computer, and I wish that we had had more practical things to do, because that’s what they really love. I did originally want to do a bodies and autopsies lab where we looked at the decay of hotdogs over time in different scenarios, but when it came down to it, I was too grossed out by the idea. So I ate the hot dogs instead 🙂

I think next time, I would do these two topics on separate days so that it’s not so computer centered, but I really liked the mini-report of a major crime activity. And the autopsy one for that matter too–it’s so interesting to see what they make of actual material. I would have loved to get a coroner in to talk to them about what it’s like to pronounce people dead and what not.

I also realized that this class is very human-centered. There are a lot of other things that forensics is used for–I mean, think art alone, right? They used X-rays to determine that some artists painted more than one painting on a canvas. That’s still forensic science. I would love next year to go to an art museum and hear from a curator how they use forensic science. Or even watch that movie to go along with it… what’s that one with Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan? Anyway… a colleague of mine also told me that we should watch The Making of a Murderer–apparently that’s an awesome series, and also very forensics related. This would be neat to do as a one-a-day episode kind of thing.

Well, that’s all for now, folks! Tomorrow, we’re going to see the Body Worlds Exhibit in NYC, which should be a ton of fun. Until next time!

*This is also a part that I’m really struggling with–how can I portray all the aspects of forensic science without sounding biased? I want to show so many different angles, but in reality, there are only those angles that I know of and choose to portray, you know?



Decay Microbes Help CSIs Figure Out Time of Death

microbes on corpses

In a recent study, scientists found that no matter where a body is buried, the same types of microbes from the soil break down the body, and in the same order (i.e. certain species start off in the decaying process, but then as the body decomposes further, other organic materials are exposed, which draws other organisms). This could be a huge finding in helping to figure out the time of death in forensic science.

Read more here.