CSI effect livens up science education

A California high school trains students for careers in forensic biotechnology

The forensic biotechnology pathway at James C. Enochs High School in Modesto City Schools, California, incorporates the science behind the popular CSI TV show to excite students about a career in the science behind criminal investigations.

Nearly 350 students participate in the four-year program that combines fictional and real-world cases with hands-on research.

Ninth-graders start with earth science classes and investigations. For example, one “mystery” involves a stolen car, GPS coordinates and a suspect with four kinds of colored mud on his boots. Students analyze regional soil samples to determine where the suspect had been and then construct a timeline to check an alibi.

“If you have a lesson that you can put a storyline on, you’ll get a suspension of disbelief, and students will buy into it” says David Menshew, the science teacher who co-founded the program 12 years ago.

The curriculum focuses on biology in grade 10. In one exercise, students test water from wells along a local river to determine source of potential contaminants. Students compare their samples to clean water and develop hypotheses about the level of contaminants that reach drinking wells.

In grade 11, students learn scientific techniques such as DNA fingerprinting—a laboratory exercise where DNA taken at a mock crime scene is analyzed, resulting in a profile that is compared to a suspect’s genetic material.

Senior status

During senior year, students go on a field trip to a coroner’s office to view an autopsy. Students have assisted with examinations by measuring the mass of brains, hearts and other organs.

The school partners with local biotechnology companies and research laboratories, including an entomology lab that employs student interns. These partners donate the same kind of equipment—thermal cyclers, for instance, and DNA analysis devices—that would be used at a research university.

Seniors also visit district middle schools to demonstrate forensic biology experiments and to potentially recruit younger students into the program.

“Seniors get a self-esteem boost because of the work” Menshew says. “They get a chance to be experts, and then we receive good perceptions about our school, our program, and of science in general.”

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