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Examining possibilities

Middle school students learn forensic practices

It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday, and a group of seventh- and eighth-graders at Centennial Middle School in the West Valley School District is looking at blood spatters.

It’s not real blood – a mixture of water, milk and red food coloring substitutes for the real thing. The students are looking at the spatters closely to determine what it looks like when it drops from a certain angle.

“The height launches it down, it shoots down toward the ground,” said Levi Warr, a seventh-grader taking Heather Wright’s forensic class. The students compared what a spatter looked like coming from a 15-degree angle and what it looked like landing flat on the ground. The blood made long, thin stripes on the paper from the steep angle and almost perfect circles when it landed flat.

This is the second semester the elective class is being offered at the middle school. Wright said students have been studying fingerprinting techniques, typing blood, looking at hair and fibers, studying tire tracks and learning about forgery techniques.

They also have studied DNA, which Wright said the students enjoyed. She said the strands of DNA aren’t necessarily nice to look at and are pretty slimy, but “it gives them something to hold on to.” She added that it helps the students remember the lesson taught in class that day.

Wright said she enjoys teaching the forensic class because it incorporates many different fields of science, such as biology and chemistry. She has noticed that many of the students can apply what they have learned from other science classes to her forensic class.

Since the class is a new one, Wright has also given the students an opportunity to provide feedback to her about what they would like to study. After the first semester, students told Wright they wanted to study more about blood.

Along with learning about how blood will spatter, the students have learned to type blood by using vinegar. The vinegar will curdle the milk in the synthetic blood, much like real chemical agents will clot real blood.

They have learned about interviewing witnesses and how different people see different things when something happens. They have looked at handwriting samples provided by the school secretaries to learn how to analyze it.

Wright said that the students have also learned that what they see on television in shows like “CSI” is not how forensic teams work in real life.

Representatives from Eastern Washington University’s forensic club have visited the class to tell the high school students which classes they should take to prepare them for a career in forensics. A representative from the Washington State Patrol, which operates the state’s crime lab, also brought a shirt covered in red stains. The students learned how to identify which stain was blood and which one was barbecue sauce.

The school’s student resource officer also stopped by and brought real dusting powder for fingerprinting. The students had been using cocoa powder as a substitute.

The visitors all told the students about different jobs the students can get in forensics. Wright has noticed that the students seem to be leaning toward collecting evidence so far in their studies.

“It’s such a wide field, they can go into anything,” Wright said.