Photo by Luis Garcia
While forensics may look glamorous on TV, it isn’t all analyzing maggots and post-mortem bruising.There’s, like, math involved. And science, natch.
But just as difficult as all the rigorous lessons was the process of getting the state’s first high school forensics class approved by the demanding University of California system.
The UC system met its match in Amanda Stroberg ’97, who had help planning the curriculum from other teachers in her district. She was determined not to give up until she got her class approved. It took multiple rejections. And reapplications. In fact, getting Forensic Biology approved took two years, start to finish.
“It was a real challenge and a really difficult process,” says Stroberg, who is entering her third year teaching the course. “They almost seemed not to want it.”
But that just made Stroberg work harder. “When they denied me, it really lit a fire under me.”
She honed the course des-cription for Forensic Biology over and over again, until the University of California system agreed to accept it as an elective college-prep course. Some other schools count it as a third-year science course — a goal Stroberg still has for UC. At the same time she was lobbying for the course to be accepted, she was writing letters to scientific companies throughout San Diego, subsequently raising $6,000 to buy the necessary equipment to teach the class.
“It’s a very unique course,” she says. “I really think if you get a course that students are interested in, they are going to take it. The ultimate goal is to get the students better prepared for college.”
She’s found the forensics community very supportive of her endeavor. In a given semester, her students may hear from a latent fingerprint examiner from the local police department, a Medical Examiner’s Office official and a forensic odontologist. Student lab exercises include getting a report of their own DNA, looking at various hairs under a microscope, and studying bite marks, fingerprinting and entomology.
For the latter exercise, the students actually grow maggots to learn about growth stages and how that may relate to time of death in a corpse.
Stroberg herself has undertaken extensive preparation to teach this subject. She spent a few days studying the DNA work at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department crime lab. There, in addition to the ins-and-outs of DNA sleuthing, she learned about the challenges her students may face if they enter the forensics field. A pair of openings recently drew 600 applicants.
“It’s so competitive because of these TV shows,” she says of the “CSI” franchise. But she’s aiming to give her students an edge. Two students from the first year she taught the class are pursuing a career in forensics; one of them attends the University of New Haven and will study under famed forensics specialist Henry Lee.
“She (told me), ‘I feel like I have a lot of background knowledge, and these courses weren’t as hard as they were for other students.’”
On a spring day in Stroberg’s Eastlake High School lab in southern San Diego, students work on a blood spatter exercise, determining whether a suspect’s story in a given scenario would ring true. Among the to-dos on the whiteboard this period: “Finish stringing spatter” and “Put ears on — finish skulls!” No, this definitely is not your typical high school science class.
The blood spatter lab turns out to involve not just fake blood, but much calculating of angles and even — gasp! — sins and tangents. And the students work on their facial reconstruction models, attaching ears and sculpting just the right features for the bone structure parameters they’ve been given.
Stroberg, pencil tucked behind an ear, peeking out from her stylishly straight light-brown hair, circulates among groups of students huddled over red-spattered poster paper and scientific calculators.
“They’re doing work, but they don’t realize they’re doing work,” Stroberg says. “Part of it is they want to be in class. Science just has this stigma associated with it. They may say, ‘I don’t like science,’ but they all watch ‘CSI’.”