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Western Pennsylvania schools turn to forensics to interest students in science

| Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

Sam Maslaney and Raquel Malago work on a spatter test during the class.

Franklin Regional senior Deanna Pulice is looking forward to an internship this spring at the Westmoreland County coroner's office.

Her tasks will consist primarily of answering phones and filing paperwork, Pulice said, but she will get the opportunity to go to crime scenes and see an autopsy.

"I'm hands-on, and I like science," said Pulice, 18, dismissing the idea that gory crimes might be hard to stomach.

Pulice was discussing her plans as she analyzed blood spatter patterns for her forensic science class at the high school. After dropping fake blood onto cloth, paper and glass from different heights, Pulice and her classmates recorded the length and width of the lurid red spots. Later, they would use trigonometry to determine angles of impact in a staged crime scene.

"It's mostly corn syrup and food coloring," said Hugh Hubble, who has taught the elective for two years. "It's pretty good stuff. It behaves a lot like human blood."

Franklin is one of several high schools in the area that offer the subject, largely because of popular demand by students. Teachers attribute growing interest in the course to television dramas such as "CSI" and "Law and Order." Though popular culture might bring students to class, schools see forensic investigation as a way to get them more interested in science.

"The kids who don't feel like they can be good at science finally have something they are good at, because it interests them," said Monica Erwin, who teaches forensic science at Upper St. Clair High School. "The students who maybe turn off in other sciences, they're always working in this class."

Forensic science is not part of Pennsylvania's standards for science education, and it does not show up on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test. But science teachers say it can reinforce skills learned in other courses, especially for juniors and seniors who choose not to take higher-level or Advanced Placement science courses.

"What I like about the class is you can integrate all the different sciences," said Meg Kernicky, who began teaching forensic science at Derry Area High School last fall. "Sometimes you're using biology, chemistry and physics, all in one lab activity."

Last semester, she said, students worked with fingerprints, examined hair and fibers, isolated DNA and discussed the use of forensics in current crimes.

"They get to use their analytic skills," she said. "It's not the encyclopedia-type science, which definitely can be boring to some students."

"It's about processes; it's not about memorizing definitions," said Derry senior Alex Watson, 17, who confessed that she was not a stellar physics or chemistry student, but she enjoyed the class she and her friends nicknamed "CSI."

The popularity of "CSI" sparks students' interest, but it also breeds misconceptions, said Sarah Kucherer, who has taught forensic science at Hempfield Area High School for three years.

Students may be lead to believe "that it's very glamorous," she said. "Sometimes it's very tedious. You might spend a week doing a hair comparison."

Kucherer, who began teaching six years ago after a 20-year career as a forensic investigator, said she drew on her work in crime labs as a way to connect science to reality.

"There are a lot of stories I don't tell," she said. "It has to be school-appropriate. There's always someone who's more squeamish than they thought they'd be."

To keep things PG-13, Kucherer said, the students would examine a skeleton made of PVC pipes, and fake blood used in lab activities would have a mild, pinkish hue.

Forensic science is relatively new to most high school teachers, and unlike Kucherer, most cannot draw on personal experience to develop their courses.

Kernicky, a biology teacher by training, said she worked with the Biotech Outreach Center at St. Vincent College to develop lessons and borrow supplies.

"This semester, I enjoyed learning along with the students," she said.

Duquesne University's Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law also has helped schools create forensic science programs, and it hosts annual conferences for teachers of forensic science, said Ben Wecht, a program manager and the son of pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht.

"There is room for more professional development," Wecht said.

Nancy Jackson, director of development at the American Academy of Forensic Science, said the organization has held workshops for high school teachers at universities across the country since 2004.

"A good forensics program will include everything you see on 'CSI'," Jackson said, but it should also show students the wide range of careers that touch on crime investigation, ranging from dentistry to toxicology.

"Good forensic scientists are always in demand," she said. "There are so many careers, so many fields of scientific work that touch forensic science."

Even if the students choose not to pursue scientific careers, Kucherer said, knowledge of forensic science can make students better citizens.

"These kids will be sitting on juries one day," she said.

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