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Criminalistics in the Classroom

Carolyn Rost






In 1990 our Math and Science Departments, through the generous funding of the GTE Corporation, developed a Forensic Crime Lab at our school. With the help of twenty enthusiastic students, ten teachers and community help we refurbished an annex of our science department to house the tools of the criminalist including an infrared spectrophotometer, electrophoretic equipment, fingerprinting tools, darkroom facilities, MacIntosh computers with CD-ROM and on-line capabilities, and research materials.

The design of the lab and the instructional unit was designed by myself and Jay Siegal, forensic toxicologist at Michigan State University. I had the generous invitation to work in Dr. Siegal's laboratory for a summer, learning and working closely with him as I modified activities for incorporation into the high school curriculum.

The teaching objectives included: exposing students to sophisticated laboratory equipment, exposing students to the significance of physical evidence, educating the student to the admissibility of evidence into a court of law, encouraging electronic searching methods, developing writing and speaking skills, encouraging inquiry, cooperation and authentic assessment, demonstrating the experimental limitations on accuracy and observation. The project also served to provide mentoring models, encourage collaboration among faculty and students and to encourage discussions on respectful school behaviors. Although this unit is clearly multi-disciplinary, the basic instructional package allows our students to effectively integrate math and sciences to solve student designed crimes.

RESOURCE: Criminalistics, Richard Saferstein.


Crimes are written in the first semester by the upperclass students. Creative writing and good detective skills are combined in creating such past fictitious, nonviolent, crimes as "The Missing Snow Penguin," "Who Stole the Altar Wine" and "Vicious Valedictorian." Evidence was then collected including trace evidence such as hair, dirt and fibers, fingerprints, objects of clothing, pseudoblood samples, tool marks and impressions and handwriting samples. These objects were stored along with a preliminary police report in an Evidence Box. The suspected criminals in these cases are usually the faculty who generously allow themselves to be mug shot, fingerprinted and described freely as intellectual criminals. During the second semester underclass students solved these crimes motivated by the sheer sense of discovery.


The design of the Crime Lab utilizes the Generative Learning Model and a collaborative approach. The GLM demands a teaching strategy where students are given time to identify and articulate their preconceptions and investigate the utilities of their own ideas. In the GLM the learner is an active participant. The Forensic Crime Lab allows one group of upper classmen to serve as mentors in ten areas of criminalistics including toxicology, trace evidence, biological, jurisprudence, fingerprinting, and document analyses for example. These students also write the crimes and collect evidence for their evidence boxes. The underclassmen who solved the crimes are required to research tools and techniques of the criminalist and then perform laboratory analyses to pinpoint perpetrators of the crimes.

Studies at the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota concluded that having students work together to solve problems is more powerful than having students work alone. Student motivation, attitude and learning increased with this cooperative approach. Typically, four students are assigned to one particular crime and given an evidence box for thorough analyses. Students working as this collaborative Forensic Crime Team are expected to present constructive arguments to a jury, interact through written and oral reports and work together in reaching a shared goal: that of solving a mysterious crime.


Evaluation of the project consists of three parts. First, Crime Teams are expected to turn in monthly laboratory reports consisting of tools, techniques and research methods used to analyze data. Secondly the Crime Team must present their case to a jury in May. And finally, all students personally evaluate their own performance individually, and as a group. Evaluations are always favorable.

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