Story and Photo By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Was the fatal gunshot wound to the head self-inflicted or the work of an outside perpetrator?
Is the white powder in that mailed envelope anthrax, drugs or baby powder?
Can even a partial fingerprint and the tiniest drop of blood at the scene of a burglary rule out the most obvious suspect and lead to the identity of the real thief?
While the “cadavers” will be dolls and the “blood” a benign mixture of red food coloring and corn syrup, these are among the crime scenarios students at Archbishop Shaw High will be picking apart this school year in a brand-new elective called forensic science.
The semester-long course, debuting this fall and to be repeated in the spring, will immerse more than 50 Shaw students in the day-to-day work of law enforcement professionals who gather evidence and reconstruct crime scenes, as well as the lab-based forensic scientists who analyze that evidence and report back on their “just-the-facts” findings.
“We (faculty and administrators) asked ourselves, what courses could we offer students that would interest them and give them real-life skills, and could possibly encourage them into a career path they may not have already considered,” said Ben Russo, who created the forensic science course as Shaw’s chemistry teacher and a former research scientist specializing in proteins and DNA.
“Looking at our demographics, a number of our students come from law enforcement households, and we also have a number of students who are interested in the law path,” Russo said. “This course will help them, too, because they will need to understand the information that they’re getting from the forensic scientists. Students like classes that have application. They can see what they’re working for – it’s right there in front of them.”
Painting a crime ‘picture’
The first third of the course will pitch students into a series of simulated crime scenes, staged either inside school buildings or on campus grounds, and challenge them to collect information such as witness statements, fingerprints, blood, fibers and other physical evidence such as bullet casings and holes.
“They might be picking up the bullet shell casings, and obviously, they will have to try not to get their own prints on them because they’ll want to dust them for prints and reconstruct the crime scene,” Russo said.
“How do we look at blood splatter and figure out where the person was situated in the room when the crime occurred? How can we figure out where the shooter was firing from? So, they will have to use some basic trigonometry,” Russo added.
Realistic touches at the staged sites will include yellow crime-scene tape, shattered glass, fingerprint lift-strips and the tent-like plastic markers real investigators use to mark trails of evidence. The Shaw students will seal and label their evidence in bags to establish a “chain of evidence” for any future court proceedings, just as a real investigator would.
The proof is in the chemistry
The second phase of the course will be a chemistry-heavy one in which the students will stay in the lab to analyze evidence from crime scenes. They will do everything from blood typing, to culling DNA, to matching their findings to suspects.
“That’s what most forensic scientists do – where somebody gives them a sample and asks, ‘Does it match one of these other samples?’” Russo said. “They’re not going to go to the crime scene. They’re not a medical examiner, so they’re not looking at a body. It’s more like, ‘We have this evidence, can we match it to any of the other evidence that we have?’”
Impressively, the teenage scientists will learn the actual procedures professionals use to analyze human DNA, even though they will be working with animal DNA for class purposes. Using high-tech PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines, they will be able to amplify even the tiniest amounts of DNA, dye those samples and run them through electrically charged gel. They will then be able to view each sample’s uniquely banded DNA pattern, visible to the naked eye, by bathing it in UV light. The final step will be to photograph the DNA samples, using their iPads.
“It used to be that if I wanted to do a DNA analysis, I would need a substantial sample of DNA to use, whereas now, with PCR, I can take a swab,” Russo explained, recalling a recent local case in which investigators were able to identify the perpetrator of a truck theft after swabbing the mouth of a Coke can, amplifying the DNA and running it through CODIS, a registry for known criminals.
As a fun bonus, the Shaw students will get to run tests on their own DNA by swishing a saline solution in their mouths and spitting that mixture into a cup.
“We’ll pour (the sample) into a tube, centrifuge it down so we can isolate the cells and break them open, collect the DNA, amplify it and run it on a gel,” Russo said.
Various types of evidence
The final third of the course, focusing on proteins, will develop students’ advanced chemistry and biochemistry skills. During this segment, they will learn how to build a case in which human DNA might not be part of the evidence chain, but the presence of other items – such as grass, seeds and burrs found on clothing, or a protein analysis of certain residues – places a suspect at a crime scene.
“Say ‘Joe’ gets pulled over by the wildlife warden and he’s suspected of poaching. They find an ice chest in the back of his car and they want to know if he has been illegally fishing tuna,” said Russo, offering one possible scenario. “We can take samples from inside that ice chest and say what kind of fish were there.”
Russo’s students will learn that forensic science methods can also determine if salmon labeled as “wild” is genuinely so, or is actually farm-raised and being passed off to the consumer as wild.
“Wild and farm-raised salmon might taste different, but (what something tastes like) is not going to stand up in court,” Russo said. “But we can look at the proteins that are in the fish and figure out what its diet was, figure out where it lived.”
Forensic work takes time
Russo said he hopes the course will debunk the myths, perpetuated by television shows such as CSI, that crimes can be solved in 60 minutes and that forensic scientists do double-duty as police officers who “have a badge and a gun.”
“Forensic scientists are almost always civilians,” Russo notes. “A more accurate show would be ‘NCIS,’ where you see forensic scientists working in a lab. They have a very specialized job. They work with the detectives, but they’re not the ones who are going out and arresting somebody. They’re part of the team that’s putting together all this information.”
Throughout the course, students will be expected to carefully document their findings.
“As a forensic scientist, you might get called to go testify in court,” Russo said. “You have to interpret what comes out of there, and you have to put your name on it. You can’t rush or jump to conclusions. You’ve got to be careful about what you say. (The forensic scientist) can’t say, ‘That guy stole the truck because I found his DNA on the can.’ That’s not his job as a forensic scientist. What he can say is that the evidence shows that (the suspect) drank from that can, and the can was in the truck.”
Improvements to STEM ed
The Shaw students will be honing their forensic science skills in a state-of-the-art lab named for the late Dr. Gerald DeLuca, a founding Shaw faculty member who served as assistant principal of academics at the 1962-founded high school. DeLuca, a beloved science, math and Spanish teacher who was also known for his gifts as a guidance counselor, left Shaw in the early 1980s to become a professor and provost at the University of Holy Cross. After DeLuca’s death in 2018, alumni who stayed close to their former teacher, after he suffered a stroke in 1999, raised $30,000 to enhance Shaw’s chemistry lab. In addition to covering the cost of new Bunsen burners, glassware, safety glasses, Vernier sensors, pH probes and temperature probes, a portion of the group’s donation was set aside as a scholarship for academically gifted, incoming eighth graders.
Such dedication to enhancing STEM instruction, along with the proposed forensic science course and the high school’s recent investment of more $2 million in renovations to its STEM building, caught the attention of the Joe and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation, which awarded Shaw a STEM grant for the new course. The chemistry lab also received a grant from Entergy to upgrade its cabinetry.
Connecting learning to life
“What the forensic science course means to Shaw is that we’re continuing on the cutting edge of 21st-century learning, that we are doing what the founder of the Salesians, St. John Bosco, wanted – and that is, being able to make students demonstrate what they have learned,” said Mark Williams, Shaw’s principal. “Sometimes you (demonstrate what you have learned) with your hands. It’s not rote memorization. It’s not spitting back a definition. It is being able to learn with your hands by doing – and that is what’s missing in education today.”
Williams said he would like to base every class at Shaw, including courses such as history, “on a model like forensic science” to the highest degree that’s possible.
“If we do this, we will create relevance for the kids,” he said, “and they will say, ‘This could be a career possibility!’”
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.