Junior high and high school science classes used to mean dissecting frogs and learning the periodic table. But some teachers — inspired by the popularity of crime scene television shows — want to get younger students interested in science by using DNA and blood spatter instead.
Forensic scientists say students enjoy learning about the topics they see on shows like "CSI: Miami" because it relates to real situations more than, say, a frog's intestines.
How to teach junior high and high school students about the popular science was the topic of a conference this week in Indianapolis.
"It's not just a test tube in a room," James Young, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, said Thursday before teachers attended forensic workshops at Indianapolis University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "What we're trying to do is produce relevant science so the students understand the importance of science. It's interesting and it's fun for them."
High-profile trials using DNA evidence and the popular shows have helped feed a boom in forensic science programs and degrees offered at colleges and universities around the country.
Science teacher Cynthia King said students lifting fingerprints or analyzing blood spatter helps them understand the concepts taught in traditional science classes.
King lectures for seven days in her forensic science class at Zionsville Community High School — one of a handful of Indiana schools offering such classes — and students spend the rest of the year in the lab.
Students use biology when determining whether a substance is human blood, dye or cow's blood. They use physics when determining how far away someone stood to create a particular pattern of blood spatter. They use chemistry to analyze soil, and anatomy to look at bones.
"It's not just one discipline," King said. "The students enjoy the class. One of the comments that I get the most is 'This is the class I've had to think the most in — ever.'"
Other teachers, like Linda Monroe from Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, came to find ways to weave forensic science into their existing classes.
Monroe, who teaches chemistry, said her students are interested in the science they see on crime shows.
"It's a natural curiosity," she said. "It think it goes back to reading Sherlock Holmes and learning how deductive reasoning and science can solve a case. Students want to know how science can play a role in solving crimes."
About 100 teachers from several states including California, Washington, Texas, Virginia and Connecticut came to the conference, said Jay Siegel, who heads the forensic and investigative sciences program at IUPUI. He said more schools are beginning to realize the benefits of using forensic science in the classroom.
"In addition to teaching them science, it also teaches them critical thinking skills — how to approach a problem, how to look at something in an unbiased manner," Siegel said. "It teaches them to be a scientist, as well as a forensic scientist, and that's so important."