Inspired by such top-rated television shows as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “CSI: Miami,” students across the country are lining up to take forensics classes in high schools and even middle schools.

Proponents of the courses view them as another way to get kids interested in science and technology. But critics fear this trend raises disturbing ethical questions and might sensationalize violence if not handled correctly.

“It seems to me that schools need to focus on education and citizenship training for young people,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “As a general matter of curriculum, I would think this is something schools would have to approach very carefully.”

Such concerns notwithstanding, forensics classes are well under way in some schools, such as the Richfield, Minn., High School. If there were a television show called “C.S.I. Minnesota,” it might look a lot like Emily Loerakker’s class at Richfield High.

There is the ominous “Crime Scene: Do Not Enter” police tape tacked to a wall. There are the telltale blood drops spattering a piece of paper. There’s even a crowd of gawkers looking on with morbid curiosity.

The blood is actually corn syrup, food coloring, and cocoa, and the onlookers are students in Loerakker’s forensic science class, one of the most popular science electives at Richfield High and part of a national effort intended to make science more attractive to students who don’t normally take to it.

James Hurley, development director for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, said he has talked to more than 800 middle and high school teachers from the United States and abroad about starting classes.

More than 200 teachers have taken the academy’s seminars, including Loerakker, who started her class last year. Because of its popularity, she is teaching two more this year as science electives.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids who just don’t get traditional biology,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of progress when they take this class.”

Jill Johnson, assistant principal, is proud of what forensic science has accomplished, but acknowledges some initial trepidation.

“It’s a great class and a popular class, but it’s not without controversy,” she said. “Last year, we had one parent object to some of the content.”

The district decided the class was pertinent to educational goals, although teachers had to be careful with some of the material. It’s an elective, so students don’t have to take it. They can also see more graphic material on the prime-time crime shows or the Discovery Channel, supporters of the class say.

Nationally, some parents have been concerned about violence and the appropriateness of such classes in schools, Hurley said, but careful selection of topics can avoid sensationalism in favor of science.

“We welcome questions about it,” said Hurley. “We asked the question: How can we help you make an appropriate, accurate, and ethical application of forensics to your science class?”

Court TV has even gotten involved, posting curriculum material on its web site that can be used by classes.

“Really, since the O.J. Simpson case, the general public has been fascinated with the complexity of police work,” Johnson said.

Roberta Geiselhart, investigative supervisor for the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office, has spoken to classes at Richfield High and said she thinks forensics offers valuable lessons in biology, physiology, physics, technology, and math.

“I think these classes have a benefit in that it’s a nice approach for kids who don’t do well in regular science classes,” she said. “They often do well in this. It’s a real application of scientific principles for them.”

Geiselhart also said such classes give students insight into the real lives of medical and crime-scene investigators, and it’s certainly not the glamorous one seen on the numerous television shows.

In fact, one of her assignments was to have the Richfield class watch a show and “tell me what the flaws were.” The class responded, finding several instances in which TV investigators goofed or used flawed science. “It just showed me what even a little education can do,” she said.

On Dec. 6, Loerakker’s class got to push the boundaries a little. They got to stand on the tables and splatter Karo syrup around, a task they took to gleefully.

First, small teams of students measured their “blood” in beakers, then dropped it from various heights. Then they measured the size of the blood spatters. They also had to write a hypothesis: What did they think would happen as the liquid was dropped in varying amounts from various heights?

Loerakker started the course with a death-scene re-enactment, in which a section of the classroom was partitioned off, and students had to collect evidence and take measurements. They learned to take fingerprints and footprints, and future classes will discuss blood typing, DNA, and discovering trauma direction by measuring the angle of blood spatters.

“The class is really fun,” said Kim Jensen, a senior. “I want to go into forensics, and I’ve wanted to be a cop ever since my friends took this class last year.”

Her classmate, Dennis Hanson, agreed. “I generally don’t like science, but I like this class,” he said. “It’s more interesting because it’s more real; it’s less about theories and more about life than other science classes.”

Some students acknowledge that the course can be a bit trying, especially when they talk about the realities of death and such unseemly topics as rigor mortis.

Geiselhart said that’s not all bad. In fact, she has used her opportunity visiting the class to move beyond the science and math, and talk about something more important: “I very bluntly talk to them about life and death issues and lifestyle choices,” she said.

“We talk about being a bully, and where that can get you, and we talk about all the people I see who were not wearing seat belts,” Geiselhart said. “I say, ‘I know some of you are using drugs. That’s none of my business, but I can say I’ll be seeing you sooner rather than later, professionally, and it’s not a good place to meet.'”

Hurley acknowledges it’s not practical to suggest that a lot of these students will wind up working in a medical examiner’s office. But the tools used in forensic science can help in other career paths in chemistry, biology, and physiology. “It can even lead to careers in forensic accounting, which recently looked into what took place at Enron,” he said.

Joanne McDaniel, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., said it’s important that the content of such classes be developmentally appropriate for students.

“This is what pop culture is providing us,” she said. “One thing we know about teaching is that we’ve got to make [the material] relevant for students. This is one way of doing that.” But, “there is a right way and wrong way to teach [about] murder. What is important … is that this information be presented in the proper context.”

As these types of programs expand nationally, McDaniel predicts it will be difficult to ensure that instructors are teaching about crime in a proper, age-appropriate fashion. Although there is little doubt that educators had good intentions when they conceived of the forensics class, the curriculum comes with little guarantee that other teachers will maintain similar convictions as the program catches on nationwide, she said.

“It’s troublesome if it’s not done right,” she said.

Links:

American Academy of Forensic Sciences
http://www.aafs.org

Court TV’s “Forensics in the Classroom”
http://www.courttv.com/forensics_curriculum

National School Safety Center
http://www.nssc1.org

Center for the Prevention of School Violence
http://www.ncsu.edu/cpsv