Working their way slowly along a narrow dirt trail at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, the small group of McKinney ISD students scans the path for possible clues. They stop briefly as tire tracks are examined and measured, and then press forward once more through the sticky, early morning humidity. Cutting across open fields and winding through the cooling shade of overhanging limbs, the investigators arrive finally at their grim destination.
They discover the “body” lying among weeds on the bank of a pond, a few feet from the water. That a “crime” has been committed is obvious. But, the unnaturally tinted “blood” is far enough removed from reality that even the most squeamish are not offended; the dummy which serves as the victim isn’t quite realistic enough to be mistaken for an actual human being, but it’s effective enough for a primer on crime scene forensics.
This is Integrated Physics and Chemistry (IPC) -- with a twist.
With guidance from McKinney High School Criminal Justice teacher Kina Vinson and McKinney North High School Biology teacher Cally Leinen, several students tape-off a perimeter while the rest begin the process of combing the scene for clues, marking and taking note of anything and everything that might point to the truth. A stray hair is discovered on the body and placed in an evidence bag. A foreign, powdery substance is collected. Soil samples are gathered.
That evidence will travel back along the dirt path with them to their temporary classroom at the Heard’s Science Resource Center. There, these young crime scene investigators will apply principles of biology, physics and chemistry to analyze, evaluate and report their findings.
This summer session IPC class is a bit of an experiment, a pilot program for the Forensics courses that will be introduced this fall at each of McKinney ISD’s high school campuses. It is project-based learning with authenticity and rigor at its core.
“What you see here is that they’re actually using science and math as they would if they were really on the job,” says Chaurcley Cook, McKinney ISD Coordinator of Secondary Science.
Vinson, a former police officer, provides crime scene expertise while Leinen and McKinney High School Physics teacher Jordan Thiem bring extensive backgrounds in biology, physics and math.
The students, all incoming freshmen, are participating voluntarily and will receive high school credit for the course. At the outset, each participant is assigned a forensics team role to perform -- complete with a character name and detailed career description -- such as forensic biologist, forensic geologist or forensic toxicologist. From this, students are exposed to a variety of intriguing scientific careers. To add to the authenticity, each participant receives an embroidered lab coat, donated by McKinney Medical Center, that bears the moniker of his or her role.
Cook says that an emphasis is placed on the importance of effective communication; at the conclusion of their investigation, the students report on their findings. “We’re trying to teach them 21st century leadership skills, about how to present yourself to others and present the work.”
Vinson talks about the unique nature of the class’s forensics theme. “Everything they do in this class is spun off of the first crime scene,” she says.
“They are going to do blood splatter trajectory, a lot of measuring, a lot physics, a lot of chemistry. So, it’s all going to spin off of that. We’re going to take a roast and bury it out on the grounds and then go dig it up and look at how it decays, the animals that bury themselves in it. Foot impressions, we’re doing that. Tire impressions, we’re doing that. And it’s all related back [to the curriculum]. And in the meantime, they’re learning,” says Vinson.
It is hoped that this type of class will spark an interest among students who may be ambivalent toward science. “Ok, you don’t like science? How about this spin on it?” says Vinson
The students currently enrolled seem to have no complaints beyond the potential for minor allergy flair ups. Asher Outarsingh, who will be a 9th grader at McKinney High School this fall says, “It’s a lot of fun. It’s definitely better than just sitting in a classroom and doing nothing all summer.” The forensics angle has piqued his interest in a career field he had not previously considered. “I’ve never really thought of police work, but I’m actually considering it now,” he says.
Fellow McKinney High School 9th grader Jhovana Oliva says, “It’s way better than a regular class. They give us fun activities, a fun way to learn.” And the whole crime scene thing? “It’s pretty cool. It’s, like, amazing.”
“They love it. When we get here, they’re ready. [They ask], ‘What are we doing today?’” says Vinson.
Equally promising is the buzz Vinson says she and her colleagues have been hearing about the fall Forensics classes. “This past year, we started telling our kids about this Forensics class that was coming to the high schools, and that’s all they’ve been talking about.” It is cause for celebration among those who strive continuously to engage kids’ interest in academic pursuits.
Students excited about a class that they are going to take next fall?
Now that’s worth investigating.