Jay A. Siegel
For the past two decades, forensic science has become extremely popular, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. A plethora of TV series, movies, and books focus on it. This has been accompanied by an explosion of university classes and degrees in forensic science and a growing list of secondary schools offering beginning and advanced forensic science classes—many of which include laboratory exercises, crime scene searches, and even mock trials. Forensic science is challenging and interesting, playing into our seemingly insatiable fascination with solving puzzles. Most important, the interest in forensic science gives science teachers a way to demonstrate how different science fields work together, to teach critical-thinking and interactive learning skills, and to show students the importance of creativity while having fun. Many students immersed in forensic science don’t realize they are learning science and developing advanced learning skills that will serve them throughout life.
Forensic science is the classic example of multidisciplinary education. It uses the principles and tools of chemistry, physics, math, biology, biochemistry, law, ethics, and criminal justice. It demonstrates how these sciences work together through the justice system to solve problems and answer questions about crime and help determine who is guilty. Suppose someone fires a gun and kills someone else. When the gun is submitted to the forensic science laboratory, it may be tested for fingerprints or DNA typing to see who handled it (chemistry, biology, and microscopy). The bullets recovered from the victim can be tested to see if they were fired by the gun and from what angle and direction (math, physics). The suspected shooter may have his hand swabbed to see if he recently fired a weapon (chemistry). The victim’s clothing can be tested to determine if gunshot residue is present, which can be used to determine the approximate distance from which the weapon was fired (chemistry, physics, and math).
When a forensic scientist receives evidence, she or he must think critically about how it will be analyzed, what tests will be done in what order, what conclusions may be reached, how the analysis may affect or contaminate other tests of the evidence, and whether enough evidence is available to analyze and still preserve samples. As students learn the principles of forensic science, the ways evidence is analyzed, and forensic scientists’ thought processes, they will begin to see the importance of critical thinking in any scientific inquiry. They will learn how each step of the analysis contributes to the conclusions. They will learn when to accept analytical findings, when to view them with skepticism (always), and when it is proper to reject data. Developing these skills will make students better learners, better scientists, better problem solvers, and better citizens.
Of course, students need to become familiar with the literature of forensic science, both fictional and real. Reading studies of real cases can be exciting and fun. Reading about how expert forensic scientists approach evidence analysis and learning the methods and techniques they use is also very important. None of this, however, is as important as doing. Forensic science is best taught when the students are given real (albeit mock) evidence to analyze. They will develop sharp observation skills, learning to observe evidence with the naked eye and with various types of microscopes. They will learn to manipulate very small particles of evidence, such as a single hair, a tiny paint chip, or a microscopic blood stain. They will need to decide what tests to run in what order and how to conserve evidence. They will develop excellent note-taking skills and learn how to properly document what they do. All of these skills will transfer to their other science courses and help make them better scientists.
Forensic science, like most scientific endeavors, is not all hard science and analysis. It sometimes requires creativity and imagination. I had a case in which some bits of plastic were found in a bag of lettuce. I couldn’t readily identify the type or origin. While wandering around a large department store, I noticed the plastic resembled that of a small bicycle reflector. I bought one and smashed it. Voila, the pieces looked just like the evidence under a microscope. Further analysis proved the evidence consisted of broken pieces of a reflector.
Remember, incorporating mock trials and crime scene searches into a forensic science class provides opportunities to involve criminal justice professionals, such as lawyers and crime scene investigators, as advisors in the class. It also teaches students how to work in teams as they investigate the crime scene and assume different roles, such as note taker or evidence collector. As they proceed through mock trials, they also can serve as prosecutors, defense experts, and so on.
A forensic science course in secondary school brings much to the classroom that will benefit students during their education and throughout life. It is also interesting, topical, and fun.
Until his recent retirement, Jay Siegel was chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. Before that, he was the director of the Forensic Science Program at Michigan State University. He is editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of Forensic Science (Elsevier), co-editor of the journal Forensic Science Policy and Management, and coauthor of two forensic science textbooks.