Alaska youngsters get opportunity to learn the ins and outs of forensics

The leg bone is connected to ...

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2007

If a human torso washed up along Cook Inlet, would you be able to determine the sex, height and ethnicity of the person based solely on their remains? Students at the Grace Christian School in Anchorage will be able to before the month is out.

ConocoPhillips and the Fraternal Order of Alaska State Troopers (FOAST) sponsored the second Crime Scene Investigations Camp at Grace Christian School. The camp consists of two five-day programs where students from all over the state ages 12 to 18 can watch an arson dog sniff out cotton balls doused in flammable liquid, study forensic anthropology and DNA collection and analyze outdoor crime scenes.

“The concept is to use forensic science to get kids interested,” said Tom Anderson, retired director of the Alaska State Troopers and coordinator for FOAST.

Despite the low numbers of students enrolled in science courses, Anderson said more than 90 kids are enrolled in the camp. Whether forensic-based shows such as CSI sparked kids’ interest, Anderson said the demand for it is huge.

“(Schools) in the Lower 48 have been doing this for years,” he said. “Some of the high schools now have forensic science courses, which are using the same concepts we’re using.”

Deborah Fancher, a science teacher at Grace Christian School and one of the camp’s instructors, said kids respond better to the hands-on approach forensics brings to science rather than sitting down and reading a chemistry textbook.

“It’s a little bit out of that box, yet it incorporates every bit of that science,” she said. “We’re becoming so content-driven because the kids have to meet standards, you don’t have a lot of time to do extra stuff.”

An example of that science is when students use measurements and mathematical formulas to determine the ethnicity of a person based on the shape of their skull. They can also determine a person’s gender based on the width of the pelvis and a person’s height based on the length of the femur (leg bone).

“Someone (of) African American descent has a different skull measurement than someone of European descent,” Fancher said. “If a body washes up and all you have to go on is a jaw bone, you can tell where they come from. That helps if you don’t have any DNA or anything else to go by.”

Computers also are an important part. Students will get to meet with an FBI agent and talk about computer-related crimes.

Camp instructor Leesa Wingo, who also teaches the forensics courses at South Anchorage High School, said some of her students have gone on to study forensics at Eastern Washington University and the University of Tennessee.

“Many of (my students) like the crossover between criminal investigation and forensics,” she said. “That’s just on an individual student basis. (Each) gets turned on by different things.”

Now fully accredited after two years, students in Wingo’s class do a lab each week. These projects vary from determining the consistency of human guts, which Wingo’s students determined is close to macaroni and water, to using flesh-eating beetles to clean up a skeleton.

“Kids like forensics because it’s a popular topic right now,” Wingo said.

Forensics seems to be even more popular among women. Fancher said approximately 80 percent of the students in the CSI camp consist of females.

“One of the things they tell teachers is that (science) is losing women all the time,” Fancher said. “I’ve never seen a camp that would attract 80 percent of women.”

Fancher said students are coming from as far away as Oregon and Fairbanks to attend the class.

“It’s hard to get kids to come back to school,” Fancher said, “but once they’re here they’re having a good time.”

Students can earn half a science credit by attending two summers in a row, Fancher said. This year’s course is full, but students can enroll for next year’s course if they go on the Alaska State Trooper Museum’s Web site If teachers are interested in incorporating forensics into their curriculum there will be a three-day seminar in Montana. For more details and a registration sheet, e-mail George Taft at

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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