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Some Serious Science

Featured Photo from Some Serious Science

Students in Lake Mary High’s hair-raising forensics program don’t shy away from the dirty work of solving crimes

Blood. Murder. Poison.

...But a student wants to know, “When do we get to rigor mortis?”

This is not your everyday high-school syllabus.

So much so, that one of the first things students must do to enter Lake Mary High’s forensic science program is have their parents sign a waiver.

“Some of the things we talk about are not going to be G-rated,” says teacher Brooke Michaud, who joined the program this school year after a long education career in Oregon. “We’re dealing with a lot of heavy stuff.”

Yet this nine-year-old program is not all gore and macabre. In studying forensics, students pick up more than the hard sciences of chemistry, physics, and biology. They also learn math, logical thinking, history, and even psychology as they prepare for such careers as crime scene investigator and medical examiner.

And talk about hands-on education...

On a recent fall morning, Brooke is introducing her Forensics I students to fingerprint analysis, which one textbook describes as “the pillar of modern criminal investigation.” Brooke lectures briefly on the loops, whorls, and arches that make each fingerprint unique as her students subconsciously begin examining their own hands. Then things get fun when Brooke’s sophomores use Scotch tape and pencil lead to map out their own fingerprints, then tally the resulting patterns.
“You guys have a lot of whorls in here,” she remarks.

While not terribly sophisticated, the fingerprint exercise is “a big hook” in lighting up her students’ interest in forensics.
“I kind of nerd out,” Brooke says. “I get excited by it.”

Forensic science is one of two twin programs of emphasis at Lake Mary High, the other one focusing on law. Both lead to dual-enrollment courses at Seminole State College, with a path to similar programs at the University of Central Florida.
All freshmen in the program are exposed to law, but some find forensics to be more tactile and gritty and choose that path for their remaining years.

The forensics classroom is stuffed with plastic skeletons, dental impressions, microscopes, beakers, crime-scene tape, models of human organs, and a bottle that contains, according to its label, “frightfully realistic” blood.

Teaching such a serious subject matter requires deftness. Brooke doesn’t want to sugar-coat the often grisly nature of crime-scene investigations. At the same time, her students are not adults, and there are a few areas where she deliberately chooses not to go.

One classroom textbook pulls no punches in describing in great detail such headline-grabbing cases as the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony murder trials. The textbook touches on what is called the CSI effect, the notion that television shows about forensics may have raised the bar for jury convictions, even though many criminal cases rely heavily on circumstantial evidence.

While some legal analysts describe this effect as anecdotal, at best, there is no doubting the impact crime-scene television shows have on making American kids curious about this line of work.

Brooke doesn’t recall any forensics programs around when she was in high school, and some of her students admit to growing up on such shows as CSI and Bones.

She and her students share a friendly rapport.

“The students have embraced Mrs. Michaud and enjoy being in her class,” says Mickey Reynolds, Lake Mary High’s principal. “She has worked endless hours to keep the program going.”

The forensics students quickly brush off any notion that some subjects covered in the program might be too intense.
“It doesn’t bother me,” says 15-year-old sophomore Seth Hansen. “It’s all interesting stuff.”

Also, students like Erinne Hillman, a 16-year-old junior 

in the Forensics II program, are savvy enough to know that forensics television shows can play fast with the facts for dramatic effect.

“You don’t get blood results back in an hour,” Erinne says. “They have tools in the shows that don’t even exist.”

The students explain that it’s not the gorier aspects of forensics that sustain their attention. It’s the detective work, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.

“I like to figure out whodunit,” says junior Aaliyah Smith.

Just as cops use dark humor to get through harrowing situations, Brooke’s classroom serves up a dose of whimsy to diffuse the intensity of the subject matter. As students exit, they encounter yet another model skeleton hanging on the door. But this one is jauntily waving bye-bye.

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