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The City Journals

Solving murders in ninth grade

Mar 08, 2018 03:50PM ● By Jet Burnham

Hands-on lab turns students into CSI agents. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

Erin Wright, biology teacher at Fort Herriman Middle School, greeted her ninth-grade class with a shocking announcement.

“Last night, Mrs. Dowdle got murdered—again.”

Students reacted with enthusiasm because they knew this signaled the start of a forensics lab. Fellow science teacher Gayle Dowdle was not really dead (she was the victim in the eighth-grade crime simulation last year as well). But the storyline was created to help students realize how the science concepts they have been learning in class are used in the real world.

“We ask the question a lot of ‘when are we going to use this?’ So with this we are actually seeing we can use this in forensics or medicine,” said Alexander Hill, who loves the twice a month hands-on labs. 

The interactive labs are made possible by enthusiastic teachers such as Wright. She purchased the forensics equipment—DNA samples and gel electrophoresis equipment—using money she was awarded through a grant. She was able to simulate DNA samples to show the students what it actually looks and behaves like. Students took samples of the “DNA” (simulated by colored sugar water) found at the crime scene and placed it into the gel molds along with the DNA of three suspects. To determine the matching DNA and identify the murderer, the samples were processed using the gel electrophoresis equipment. Students were able to see the process of DNA separating into different-sized strands. 

“This is a great technology that ties into so many different learning goals,” said Wright. She said the process is what actual forensics scientists use. 

“It teaches them a little bit about forensic sciences, which most of them have seen on one of the police dramas that they’ve seen,” Wright said. The process is also used to diagnose diseases and identify genetic traits and for paternity identification.

Students were excited to do the lab and see the results. They are aware that most middle school classrooms don’t have the equipment for such a realistic lab.

“It’s great to be able to do it in middle school and have that experience of being a real scientist and making discoveries,” said Alexander.

Wright said the time spent writing the grant was worth it to be able to help her students understand DNA particles more completely.

“I like to spend a lot of time on DNA because it’s such an important part of life—it ties into everything,” she said. 

Once students understand the properties of DNA, they can move on to topics like reproduction, genetics, evolution, cells and mutations.