Bob Hallinen / Anchorage daily news
CSI in Alaska: Anchorage high school students Rochelle Jackson, left, and Sarah Williams study soil samples last week in South High School teacher Lessa Wingo's forensic science class. Two Anchorage high schools offer the hugely popular forensic science classes.
ANCHORAGE - High school students who sometimes find science a snooze are filling up forensics classes that capitalize on interest in TV shows focusing on crime scene investigation.
"I took this class because it sounded cool and different, and it definitely is really interesting," said Chris Higley, a junior at South Anchorage High School. "It's challenging in that you have to do work, but it's fun work and you learn a lot of stuff that's pretty important and cool."
South and East Anchorage high schools have launched forensic classes that mimic the sleuthing used on shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." In one class, students pick methodically through dishes of soil for the smallest clue; in another lab, a black light slides across a hunk of rock, revealing glowing specks that could be paint. Or is it blood?
Students say they enroll in forensics class because TV shows in the "CSI" lineup make science seem dramatic, worthwhile, even fun. The crime dramas routinely rank in the Nielsen top 10 and earn high ratings among young viewers. "Cold Case Files" and "Law & Order" are other edgy TV shows fueling new interest in forensic science.
Teens say the shows are a test of wits to see if they can solve the mystery. It probably doesn't hurt that the lead characters are unfailingly smart, good looking and tough. Although a recent National Research Council report has questioned the general effectiveness of lab time in schools, high school and college science instructors say that chemistry and forensics classes have caught on.
South and East high schools both planned for two classes each; East quickly added a third to accommodate interest and now there are more than 140 students studying forensics, a discipline that enhances understanding in science, math, health and English.
Examining soil samples helps students connect to earth science and converting findings to written reports offers practice in language arts, where research, punctuation and grammar all count toward a grade. Studying the law and the psychology of the criminal mind falls under social studies, while chemistry is touched on when students grapple with densities and organic and inorganic analysis.
"I love science," South junior Sarah Williams told the Anchorage Daily News. "But I usually just take astronomy classes. Then I heard about forensics and I watch 'CSI' and stuff like that, and I was like, 'Yes!"'
Students say that digging into experiments from virtually the first day of class helps them learn by doing. For instance, students learn to analyze fracture patterns on windshields to see how to reconstruct the impacts of an accident. An overview of forensics careers and history is explained. Document and handwriting analysis, voice pattern study and check and computer fraud are all part of the course.
So is prodding corpses - dead chickens, that is, donated by a local butcher. Students in Leesa Wingo's South High class examine the chickens to research time of death based on body temperature.
For South High's Chris Higley, a highlight was hearing from George Taft, former director of the state crime lab. Taft, who retired in 2002, mesmerized students with local crime stories. Higley, 16, flipped open his camera phone to show a picture of himself with Taft.
"He showed us all these pictures and stories of crimes that happened right here in Anchorage, even up on the Hillside," Higley said. "That's our side of town. It made it really interesting."