• CSI techniques taught at Madison High School’s Forensic Science class

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    Students in Rachel Stagner's class as Madison High School use "CSI" techniques in a science class setting. (Photos by Pamela Jordan)

    Scenario: A student teacher is found dead in a science classroom. His body is face down in the center aisle between the lab tables. There is some blood spattered around the victim. There is a green water bottle on a lab table near the victim. Fingerprints are on the bottle. White powder is on the victim’s hands. A green fiber is caught in a hinge near the lab table. How did the teacher die and what caused his death?

    Imagine if you were expected to find the answers to those questions in your high school science class. That was the challenge for students in Rachel Stagner’s Forensic Science class at Madison High School.

    “I wanted more options for students to get science in an interesting way that applied to their lives and science they wanted to learn,” said Stagner. “I’ve always liked ‘CSI’ and shows like that, so I thought there’s no reason why we can’t teach it here.”

    Stagner got the idea 10 years ago when she was a student teacher at Grant High School, and Kelly Allen was teaching a similar course. Stagner created a forensic science class at Madison as soon as she could.

    The popular class is always full, and students appreciate the challenge and that what they’re learning is used in the real world.

    “It’s an experience of what cops have to go through, to get evidence, to make sure the evidence is safe, the procedures they do when investigating cases,” said Jonathan Ferguson, a junior at Madison. “My dad’s friend is a cop, and we talked about it, and I could see myself doing this one day.”

    Forensics covers a wide range of sciences including examining skeletal remains, bodily fluids and trace evidence, such as the white powder found near the victim. The detailed observations needed to crack real world cases is why Madison junior Amina Osmon likes the class.

    “I’m learning a lot, and I’m going to take more science next year,” said Osmond. “There are a lot of interesting things we can solve and help people out through this.”

    Stagner has been recognized by a number of organizations for her outstanding teaching and research. Recently she learned that she was named an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow—one of only 14 STEM teachers selected from around the United States. The fellowship is offered by the U.S. Department of Energy and allows teachers to be involved in federal education policy. Starting in September, Stagner will spend 11 months in the Washington, D.C. area at NASA, developing curriculum and doing educational outreach. 

    It’s not uncommon for one of her students to come to class after watching a TV crime drama, like “CSI” and point out if the show’s characters followed proper procedures. Sometimes they don’t, and often lab results, such as DNA tests, are not instantaneous like on TV.

    “I know most of the students aren’t going into forensics, but they can directly see why they’re learning something,” said Stagner. “They learn to think critically. That’s what’s most powerful about the class. It teaches them to think critically and defend their conclusions with evidence.”

    As for how the student teacher died, the students wind up drawing some conclusions but never find all the answers.

    “That’s how real cases and real life work,” said Stagner.

    -Pamela Jordan