Class teaches biology through crime scene evidence

2012-08-28T16:15:00Z 2012-08-28T23:57:21Z Class teaches biology through crime scene evidenceBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The body was on a gurney in the back of the classroom and pools of blood and vomit congealed on the floor in front of the white board.

The students in Christine Simonsen's biomedical science class walked around, examining the spot on the floor where the body was found — marked by a outline next to a small ladder — and looked at pictures of the body as it was found.

"She was painting," one student called out.

"She was on the ladder, passed out and hit her head," another said.

The body and the crime scene, of course, are fake, part of the biomedical science course curriculum. The class, offered at School District 2's Career Center, is new this year and so far students are loving it.

"I like the hands-on part," said Jacob Guy, a junior from West High.

Students will spend the year learning the biology behind many of the signs found on the body — everything from the color of the skin to the gray on the fingernails to the vomit on the floor.

"It's all going to help them figure out what led to the death," Simonsen said.

The case is officially labeled the "Ana Garcia Crime Scene." In the the narrative, she was a school custodian found dead in the morning at the start of school.

As written in the curriculum, the body was originally discovered in an apartment. Simonsen tweaked it so that the victim was a custodian and discovered in a classroom.

"I wanted it more real life for the kids to relate to," she said.

The students eagerly latched on.

"I think she might have had food poisoning," Guy said.

He was working with classmates Sarah Unsworth and Andrea Swenson, both from West High. As they traded theories, they consulted a hand-out with a narrative explaining the crime scene and the condition in which the body was found.

Behind them on the bulletin board were photographs of the body on the floor, posted for the students to study.

The students had no idea this was the direction the curriculum would take. The crime scene in the classroom was unexpected when students showed up Tuesday morning.

"Mrs. Simonsen warned us that we were gonna have a big surprise today," Unsworth said. "And we did."

Guy, Unsworth and Swenson had all enrolled in the class because they hope to find careers in the medical field when they graduate from high school.

And so far it's been just what they wanted.

"I like the Career Center," Swenson said. 

"This is my first time at the Career Center and I'm really enjoying it," Guy said. 

At the front of the classroom, Billings Police Officer Tom Keightley was explaining the differences between processing real crime scenes and the ones on shows like "CSI."

"It doesn't work that way," he told the class.

Sending evidence to a lab for examination is costly and time-consuming, he said. It can take weeks, sometimes months. He stressed the importance of understanding the body and how it works.

"The body itself is going to give us more information than the room will," he said.

Scott Anderson, the new principal at the Career Center, couldn't be happier with the class and its approach to fairly standard biology curriculum.

It's gets the students up and active, not buried in a textbook, and it exposes them to a dozen different jobs they could pursue, he said.

"This is fantastic," he said. "Look at the career pathways it touches."

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