Challenger Elementary students get a lesson in forensic science

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The Huntsville Times

Challenger students participate in forensics lessonBy Pat Ammons Newcomb

HUNTSVILLE, AL – Zelda had better watch out. She’s the prime suspect in the murder of her former high school classmate, and she’s got some sharp detectives on the case.

The students in the fourth- and fifth-grade gifted classes at Challenger Elementary School spent a recent morning examining a crime scene on the stage of the school’s auditorium. A chalk outline marked the spot where Wilma, Zelda’s high school friend, had fallen after drinking a poisoned drink at a 10-year high school reunion.

Zelda and WIlma had been reminiscing about times past, but perhaps not forgotten, before the crime occurred, the young detectives had discovered.

The day’s lesson was divided into parts. While one grade of gifted students examined the crime scene, the students in the other grade learned about DNA from a group of instructors from HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. They even got to extract DNA from a strawberry to see the filmy substance that often cinches a criminal case.

Then the grades switched, with each grade of students getting to thoroughly examine the crime scene and various pieces of physical evidence.

"We’re examining the powder at the crime scene and the powder found on the shoes of three or four people," fifth-grader Sam Mullin said.

"Maybe someone that killed her had powder on them," added his classmate, Tavion Holman.

Mattie Hill, a gifted teacher at Challenger, set up the forensics lesson, even having some Huntsville Police Department investigators speak to her class about their jobs.

"I stepped them through the basics of forensic science careers and the skills needed for forensic scientists," Hill said.

The students also got to fingerprint themselves and make a plaster cast of a footprint.

In another case, "somebody broke into my classroom and left a footprint in my room and stole my Dr. Pepper," Hill said.

The project will last for several more weeks, going well beyond the examination of the physical evidence. The students will write their own crime story, and Hill has set up a collaborative project in which the students can create a story through a round-robin writing process, one writer picking up where the last one left off.

While fifth-grader Alex Edwards has never seen any of the CSI television shows – "My parents don’t let me," he said – he has read detective books geared for his age and found the crime scene investigation lesson really interesting.

"We’re learning how detectives and forensic scientists extract DNA," he said.

"And how professional detectives test stuff and what they get to do every day when there’s a crime," added his classmate, Kassidy Edlin.
But what about the answer to the big question: Who done it?

"Right now, I’m thinking it’s Zelda," Alex said.

"But we’re not sure yet," Kassidy said.