MiddleSchoolPortal/Forensic Science

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Forensic Science - Introduction

Many people fret these days about the supposedly feeble state of science education in America and how kids just don’t like science and we’d better do something quick or we’ll be flattened by the rising technocracies in Asia and Europe. Yet here at New Rochelle, among the largest and most ethnically and economically diverse high schools in New York if not the nation, one phylum of science class has proved a runaway success: forensic science, the application of science to solving crimes.

This quote comes from a article, A Hit in School, Maggots and All, which details the value of forensic science in schools. The interdisciplinary nature, the hands-on aspects, and the use of deductive logic converge for high-impact, engaging science experiences for students. Several photos and a six-minute video accompany the article.

Earlier this year, the blog Connecting News to National Science Education Standards published a couple of forensics-related posts [1] because middle school students seem to be inherently interested in the field. Forensic science is a win-win, with the second "win" related to meeting various standards when studying forensics. This publication elaborates on the theme and provides teachers with background and lessons within a forensic science framework, facilitating development of middle level students' science skills and content knowledge. A section containing recent news related to forensics enables you to easily relate to the current real world. A section dedicated to careers in forensics will enable you to facilitate student understanding of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to pursue a forensic science as a career.

Before delving more deeply, let us ensure we share a common definition of forensic science. The Free Dictionary [2] gives this succinct but broad definition: The application of scientific knowledge and methodology to legal problems and criminal investigations. However, it then elaborates with, "Sometimes called simply forensics, forensic science encompasses many different fields of science, including anthropology, biology, chemistry, engineering, genetics, medicine, pathology, phonetics, psychiatry, and toxicology."

Thus, it may be appropriate not so much to teach a unit called "Forensic Science," but to integrate forensics with existing units common in middle level science -- for example, nature of science, methods of science, biology, engineering or genetics units. One could also integrate within a social studies unit dealing with ancient civilizations or with historical figures and events such as an assassination.

The definition and description above also points to methods of science as integral to forensic science. Please go to our Methods of Science publication for additional information and resources on that topic.



Background Information for Teachers

In this section are listed web sources for information regarding the wide range of forensic science fields. Knowledge of this range allows you to choose those applications that meet both your students' interests and your learning goals for them. But first let's view the NSDL Strand Map Service.

These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. Since forensics transcends individual science disciplines and yet requires mastery of science skills, an image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Using Tools and Devices map appears below. This map is one of six under the heading Habits of Mind. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. Boxes that appear to be unconnected, are connected to concepts in grade bands above or below the 6-8 band. Then complete map is visible at Using Tools and Devices. You may also want to view the Interactions of Technology and Science map since forensics often uses innovative technological devices.

Using Tools and Devices

View individual map Printable view of map

Forensic Science Along with a definition and description for forensic science, this page offers concise descriptions of various areas of forensics -- those you might expect to find and perhaps others you might not. A few examples are: forensic medicine encompasses medical examiners and toxicologists; forensic linguists determine the authorship of written documents through analyses of handwriting, syntax, word usage, and grammar; and forensic anthropologists identify and date human remains. The page also provides a description of the FBI's forensic lab sections and the kind of work in which each lab engages. Finally, it provides a short bibliography for additional reading. This is an excellent page to begin your knowledge base in forensic sciences.

History Detectives: Detective Techniques. Forensic Anthropology This site defines and describes forensic anthropology in two pages. A link to a third page leads to an interactive image of a skeleton. By scrolling over parts of the skeleton, one learns how forensic anthropologists use observations to make inferences. Additional links to related sites are provided.

Bodies and Bones Five web pages plus a bibliography from the WhyFiles use the Body Farm in Tennessee as their framework for providing thorough information regarding forensic anthropology.

Scene Creatures. Interview: Forensic Entomologist Lee Goff Among the interview questions posed to the forensic entomologist are: What led you to choose the field as a career? Could you describe the materials and methods you apply to your work in the field? Are there any general misconceptions about the field? Moreover, his answers provide insight most people probably would not have guessed, including this partial response regarding the role of TV shows in real trials: "The high profile of the TV shows has also increased the expectations of juries. They now expect some type of forensic evidence and almost appear disappointed if they don’t get any. Some people regard this as a problem, but I view it as a positive in many respects. When I began, the jury tended to behave as deer caught in headlights when confronted with scientific evidence. Now they are prepared to hear this type of evidence."

Federal Bureau of Investigation: Kids Page This page is aimed at laypersons and contains links to two sections based on grade level: K-5 and 6-12. Although the site is aimed at students, middle level teachers can pick up background information, particularly from the 6-12 section.

TruTV: Forensic Files This site complements the TV show and, as the name implies, it is not fictional. Thus, you will need to use discretion in deciding what to share with students and how you wish to use it. The site is nicely organized and has good video clips and graphics.

Forensics in the News

In addition to the links provided below, see also the Forensics category in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog.

DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show by Andrew Pollack, August 17, 2009 The scientists fabricated blood and saliva samples containing DNA from a person other than the donor of the blood and saliva. They also showed that if they had access to a DNA profile in a database, they could construct a sample of DNA to match that profile without obtaining any tissue from that person.

In a Lab, an Ever-Growing Database of DNA Profiles by Solomon Moore, March 11, 2009 This article details the growth of the FBI's DNA data base, how the DNA is processed, uses for DNA, and privacy issues. It raises important issues related to science and society and technology.

Speech Patterns in Messages Betray Killer by Elizabeth Svoboda, May 11, 2009 This story illustrates how methods in linguistic forensics intersected with modern technology to reveal a killer.

Cold Case Is Closed by DNA Match: Green River Killer by Elizabeth Svoboda, May 11, 2009 This brief story illustrates how emergent forensic technology can solve cold cases.

Tracking Cyberspies Through the Web Wilderness by John Markoff, May 11, 2009 “I continually bump up against good technologists who know how to use tools, but who don’t understand how their tools fit into the bigger picture of the investigation.” This quote, attributed to Kent Anderson, a security investigator, can be an inspiration for educators to help students make that leap from rote knowledge to conceptual understanding. This article reports on forensics applied to real examples of cyberspying. It conveys how the cases were cracked as well as the new questions which emerged from the investigations, reinforcing the positive feedback loop of science investigations in which more questions are raised while finding answers to initial questions.

Lessons and Activities

Crime Scenes Online This site provides fictional cases for paid members and nonpaying members. Each week detectives post evidence from the current investigation. Members review the interviews and evidence reports and discuss them with other web investigators. Nonpaying viewers can examine evidence files.

The Adventures of George Amato, DNA Detective This interactive site from the American Museum of Natural History simulates the actual investigation Amato conducted into illegal trade in leather from endangered species. It is divided into three sections with age-appropriate graphics and writing style.

Making Mummies This lesson is at its surface a social studies lesson, but it integrates methods in science and forensics in the study of ways mummies form, and how and what scientists can learn from them. The lesson is nicely organized by type of mummy (bog, ice, cave and embalmed) and provides examples for each with links to more about them, including the Peruvian ice mummy mentioned in the following resource.

Andes Expedition: Searching for Inca Secrets Here's your resource for integrating with a social studies unit from National Geographic. Students can view a virtual autopsy with the goal of learning more about a body found preserved in the ice of the Andes and the culture from which it came.

Forensic Detectives: Archeology at Work This lesson also enables discipline integration, linking archeology focused on ancient Peruvian culture with a modern murder mystery in Illinois. Students use evidence and reasoning while comparing and contrasting the two cases.

DNA Detective In this interactive exercise, students find out how DNA profiling can make sense of a crime scene and help identify the culprit from a list of suspects. In the process, they learn basic facts about DNA and about equipment and procedures used in the lab.

Who Did It? This simulation engages the whole class in solving a fictitious crime that occurred in the classroom. You can make the simulation more inquiry oriented by asking students what kind of evidence will be needed to solve the crime? How can such evidence be collected? Facilitate their deductive reasoning and help them see explicitly their use of deduction in order to develop their science process skills.

Handwriting Analysis Students use observation, inference and deduction in this simple but engaging activity.

Careers in Forensics

The FunWorks - The Math and Science Career Resource for Middle School This site, from Education Development Center Inc., was designed for and by middle school students. It contains career information on a wide range of math and science careers. Read more about what is takes to become a Forensics Specialist.

American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Choosing a Career This page describes what forensic science is and tells how to become a forensic scientist. It includes ten links to specialties in forensic science.

International Crime Scene Investigators Association This professional organization's page includes links to how to become a crime scene investigator.

Latest Science News from the New York Times

NYT > Forensic Science

News about Forensic Science, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related science-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.

National Science Education Standards Connections

  • Forensics necessarily encompasses Science as Inquiry. "As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop abilities to do scientific inquiry and understanding about scientific inquiry"(p. 143). The abilities portion of the standard includes concepts in identifying appropriate scientific questions, using appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze and interpret data, developing explanations and models using evidence, thinking critically, and using logic (p. 145). The understanding portion of the standard includes concepts in utilizing appropriate methods of science particular the question being investigated, using mathematics to describe phenomena, appropriate use of technology, the role of evidence and logic as related to the nature of science and disproving hypotheses or even theories, and the generation of novel questions during investigations (p. 148).
  • Physical Science concepts related to properties of and changes in matter are related, since change in matter will give clues regarding a crime scene.
  • Life Science concepts in structure and function in living systems, reproduction, behavior, and populations and ecosystems are integral to forensic entomology and anthropology.
  • Science and Technology concepts related to understandings about science and technology, such as DNA evidence, are integral to solving most modern forensic science cases.
  • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives concepts of populations, resources and environments, and science and technology in society are related to studies in forensics as well. For example, forensics was used to determine that some imported leather was illegally derived from endangered species. And the FBI's growing DNA data base includes persons never convicted of crimes. The collected DNA and analyses could potentially violate personal privacy by revealing genetic traits normally kept private.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Mary LeFever is a resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project, a doctoral candidate in science education at Ohio State University, and an adjunct instructor of biology and natural sciences at Columbus State Community College. She has taught middle school and high school science and presently teaches introductory biology at a Columbus, Ohio, high school. Please email any comments to or join the discussion at our social network for middle school math and science teachers at

Original copyright July 2009 — The Ohio State University. Last updated August 24, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.