MIDDLEBURY — It’s no mystery why Westover senior Lily Warren decided to take forensics, a science elective that was taught by Maggie Nunez-Fernandez during the winter term.
“My dream job is to be a criminal investigator, perhaps even in the FBI one day,” said Lily, a resident of Vinalhaven, Maine, who plans to major in criminal justice studies in college.
“While what I want to do is not exactly forensics, the class itself has really helped me solidify what it is that I want to do. When we watched crime documentaries in class, instead of focusing on the more scientific lab work that they showed, I often found myself watching the investigators and detectives and taking note of what they were doing.”
Defined as “the application of scientific principles and techniques to matters of criminal justice especially as relating to the collection, examination and analysis of physical evidence,” the forensics class gave students an opportunity to use scientific inquiry and further develop their skills of observation through the combination of crime scene investigation and laboratory analysis, Ms. Nunez-Fernandez said.
As an interdisciplinary science elective, the course drew upon students’ knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and geometry as needed for their investigations.
The course’s laboratories included collecting, analyzing, and identifying evidence such as fingerprints and hair, as well as using chemical reactions to detect substances to include in their findings.
A forensics course had been offered previously at Westover as an elective through its Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program. The students in this year’s elective had “a range of differences in terms of personalities and approaches,” Ms. Nunez-Fernandez said.
Seeing them at work on their labs was impressive, she added, because they grew quite comfortable in sharing their ideas with one another. “It was great seeing their strengths outside the normal academic setting,” she said. “Their deductive reasoning was quick and logical.”
Ms. Nunez-Fernandez drew support from several Westover colleagues in teaching the course. Jana Dunbar, Science Department chair, was very helpful because she had taught the course as a WISE elective. Photography teacher Caleb Portfolio led a class on how to take photographs at a crime scene, and science teacher Sarah Michaelson assisted in the section focusing on DNA analysis.
Ms. Nunez-Fernandez also received help from Librarian Giselle Boyadjian to create one of three “crime scene” laboratories set up around campus.
“Giselle came up with the crime idea and staged it herself in the library,” explained Ms. Nunez-Fernandez.
Ms. Boyadjian’s scenario was worthy of Agatha Christie: a student receives a failing grade after her classmate reported her for cheating. In the library, the failed student knocks her accuser unconscious with a heavy book, then injects her victim with a lethal dose of an unidentified substance.
In Ms. Boyadjian’s set-up, the murderer tried to make the scene look like a random act, but accidentally left clues behind – a crumpled-up test and a note in a garbage bin, a syringe top between seat cushions, and the syringe itself, which had “fallen” under a couch.
In addition, Ms. Nunez-Fernandez enlisted 10 Westover colleagues for a special assignment: they served as “suspects” who supplied samples of their handwriting to be analyzed as a means of identifying which of them wrote which note.
Other labs for the course included documenting the three “crime scenes” on campus – taking photographs, sketching the scenes, and identifying and collecting possible evidence. Students learned how to analyze hair and blood samples, examine fingerprints, and employ chromatography to identify colored substances. Students also put their chemistry skills to work examining and identifying three different kinds of white powder.
The forensics class took a field trip to the University of New Haven to tour the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences. “We had a chance to talk to a professor who was a criminal investigator before he became a professor,” Lily recalled, “so he had firsthand experience to draw from when he was answering our questions. He was upfront with us that this field is not easy, that we’re going to have to work hard, but that, in the end, it will all be worth it.”
Several of the forensics students interviewed acknowledged that they were inspired to take the class because they have enjoyed watching television shows and films that focused on criminal investigations. “I’ve always loved any show or movie that had any aspect of mystery to it,” Lily explained, “and growing up with an aunt who is in the FBI made that interest grow and made me want to learn more about the field.” Lily said the television show, “White Collar,” a show about the FBI unit that investigates “white collar” crime, “which just so happens to be exactly what my aunt does” – was particularly inspiring. “The crimes that they solve are really difficult and they seem to me like giant puzzles, which I love.”
Senior Kamille Howe of Middletown agreed. “I watch a lot of crime dramas. I always want to help people and to serve justice in a way.” In fact, Kamille will be attending the University of New Haven this fall and plans to pursue a career in Forensics Chemistry.
Ms. Nunez-Fernandez’s Forensics class “has definitely challenged me,” Kamille said. “It made me realize how much work there is in being a forensic scientist. It does definitely take longer than TV shows make it seem. You have to be really meticulous about everything that you are doing. You have to follow the same process over and over again. It can feel tedious, and it really tested my patience. But now that I have been in the class, I feel I am ready to major in it in college.”
Unlike Lily and Kamille, Sarah Gordon, a senior from Pound Ridge, New York, isn’t planning on pursuing forensics or criminal justice as a career, but she still enjoyed the class. In the course, Sarah was surprised to learn “how many different ways there are for someone to be identified. My favorite assignment was when we went out in groups to photograph different ‘crime scenes.’ It was really fun to try and find everything [that was evidence at the scene], while learning how to properly take the correct crime-scene photos.”
Julia Stout, a junior from Old Lyme, said that before she took the course, “I had some intentions of pursuing a career in forensic science, but I now believe that I would be better suited for a career in criminal justice.” Nevertheless, she enjoyed learning about “the detailed historical progression of the methods, techniques, and applications of forensic science over time. Some of my favorite aspects of the class were the real-life cases that we studied. My favorite assignment was our research presentations on unsolved crimes.”
“One of the more interesting aspects of forensics that I learned,” Lily said, “was just how accurate the lab technicians have to be, which makes sense, because when the lab work goes to trial, this is a person’s life you’re affecting and you do need to be 100 percent sure.”
“It also surprised me,” Lily added, “how much information you can gather from such a small amount of evidence. For example, with blood splatter you can determine so many things – how the injury happened, where the initial injury occurred, the speed of the weapon, and the way that the weapon was moving – all by where the blood is in relation to the body.” She was fascinated by Locard’s Exchange Principle, “which states that every time you make contact with something – it can be a person or a place – you will leave a trace behind. We learned about a bunch of cases where that has been true.”
One of the high points of the course for Kamille was the laboratory exercise in which the class had to match the 10 handwriting samples with the correct faculty and staff “suspects.” As the class examined the ten samples that were taped on the board, they found themselves comparing and discovering identifiable details in the handwriting samples. “It felt as if we were solving a puzzle.”
Lily enjoyed working on mock cases in class. “It was so much fun to be able to act like we were real investigators, even though they have months to solve crimes while we may only have had a class period or two.
“But through this class I realized that I am a very investigative thinker and, when solving a problem, I always wanted to know more and I always wanted to know why.”