CSI: Tufts

Wright Center fellow uses forensics to get kids psyched about science

Richard Fox is a criminal forensics expert from Las Vegas. The inevitable temptation is to call him the “real-life CSI,” a reference to the TV drama about crime-scene investigators who solve grisly homicides in America’s glitziest city.

But the label is misleading. Rather than working for law enforcement, Fox is a high school teacher who uses a self-developed curriculum based on forensics to teach his students about chemistry, physics and scientific technique.

Richard Fox, a Wright Center fellow who teaches high school science in Las Vegas, with some of his forensic teaching tools. © Mark Morelli

Since last fall, Fox has been a fellow at the Wright Center for Innovative Science Education at Tufts, where he has worked on expanding his forensics-based coursework into curriculum units that can be adapted for children in grades kindergarten through 12. Drawing on the popular reference, he calls his public-outreach project “CSI for Kids: Forensic Science.”

“The goal is to develop exciting science stuff for kids for [school systems] that don’t necessarily have a lot of money,” Fox says. “These are activities that will interest children in science without having to spend a lot of money. For the majority of teachers, this curriculum makes use of things readily available in school.”

From July 9 to 11, Fox will lead a workshop at Tufts for 25 teachers of students in kindergarten through high school from around the country. Using laboratory work and hands-on activities, teachers will learn how to develop classroom activities involving forensic anthropology, forensic entomology, glass and soil analysis, drug and toxicology testing and hair and fiber analysis, among other things. The workshop is being co-sponsored by the Tufts Science and Technology Center.

The Wright Center, funded mainly from the Foundation H. Dudley Wright of Geneva, Switzerland, hosts about a half-dozen elementary or secondary school science and math teachers each year through its full-time fellowship program. As part of their work, the fellows develop workshops and curriculum units across a broad area of subjects—all designed with the idea of making science education more accessible to students and improving the overall quality of science instruction in the United States.

This spring and summer, in addition to Fox’s “CSI” workshop, the center has sponsored or co-sponsored six other programs, ranging from one-day workshops that re-enacted Benjamin Franklin’s original experiments to a four-day seminar on developing science literacy through the use of science fiction stories.

Science, not sensationalism
Fox has studied forensic entomology and identification of human remains at the University of Florida and at the University of Washington, home of the Human Genome Project. In 2001, he traveled to Kosovo with a team from the University of Tennessee as part of a volunteer effort to recover and identify human remains from mass graves, the result of slaughter during the 1998 ethnic conflict.

In his own teaching, Fox was able to parlay this personal interest and training with a need to create coursework that would capture students’ attention—especially at-risk students in Las Vegas, where the lure of “big-money, menial casino jobs” makes staying in school a difficult proposition for many. “I compete with Las Vegas for my kids,” Fox says. “Education is not a big priority there. I try to get kids to stay with their education, convince them that education will ultimately increase their quality of life.”

Using a dynamic curriculum like forensics—where students get to study the physics of firearms or the chemistry of drugs and poisons—helps keep the students engaged and motivated, Fox says. The pedagogical challenge is to keep the focus on the science and not sensationalize the material.

“You need to make sure the lessons are always based on science,” he says. “Science is the thing—not to glorify the violence or use the violence as a sort of raw attraction, if you will. I make it clear that because of science, we are able to catch people and solve crimes.

“Kids, I think, have become desensitized to violence through a variety of channels—video, TV. What I want them to take away from a homicide scene is that this [victim] is someone’s husband, wife or child—to put a human face to the violence. Once we do this, the kids start to think entirely differently.”

For example, he says, “When the kids first come into the unit, they see we have these hard plastic model guns. They start picking them up, pointing them, playing games. Then we show the kids a couple of injuries, not necessarily fatal, and learn about ballistics testing. When they get a look at some entry and exit wounds caused by firearms, all of the sudden, there is a major swing in the attitude of the kids. They are no longer waving the guns around. If the material is handled correctly—with science—it can be very effective.

For his part, Fox says, “you’d be very surprised how many kids are exposed to firearms…wouldn’t it be better if the kids had respect for the physics of that weapon?”

Teachable moments
Fox started his forensics course at a magnet high school in Clark County, Nevada—which includes Las Vegas—a decade ago, before the debut of the original “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” series. Without a doubt, the popularity of the series and its spin-off, “CSI: Miami,” have contributed to interest in the class, Fox said. (CBS also plans another spin-off, “CSI: N.Y.,” for the fall.)

“The show has had a positive effect on recruitment for the class,” Fox says. “Anything I can do to get kids interested in science, I’ll take it.”

Also, the show—while largely inaccurate from a technical/scientific point of view—helps fuel class discussion, Fox says. “My kids watch it and point out what they’re doing wrong. It always leads to some discussion the following day.

“You can’t go wrong if it’s making for teachable moments. [The students] are watching for ‘scientific moments.’ How often can you get that [from TV]?”