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Students use science to solve a ?murder'

By Clay Wilson

On March 5, the school resource officer at Stockbridge High School found assistant principal Ingrid Forbes dead in the school's greenhouse.

Forbes had a puncture wound to her neck, and an autopsy revealed that she died of asphyxiation. It also revealed pockets of water around her heart.

This information, as well as several clues scattered around the scene, are all that Jane Burke's ninth and 10th grade Honors Biology classes have to go on in solving the crime.

Forbes' murder wasn't turned over to the police because she wasn't really dead. She was just the latest victim in Burke's annual "Forensic Murder Mystery."

On March 21, Burke's students went to biology labs at Clayton College and State University to try and match DNA found at the "crime scene" with samples taken from five "suspects."

"This day is probably one of my favorite days of the year," said CCSU associate biology professor Greg Hampikian. "It's everything you want teaching to be."

" ? It just makes science fun," noted Burke.

Burke and Hampikian have been teaming up on the murder mystery for six years now. Burke said she was inspired to initiate the project after taking a class in forensic science from Hampikian.

"I just tried to think of ways to apply that in the classroom," Burke said.

According to Hampikian, forensic science n the scientific study of criminal evidence n is a perfect way to get students interested in biology nowadays.

"Now that (the television show) ?CSI' is popular, I could fill the university with people who want to be forensic science majors," he said.

Hampikian himself has become something of an expert in forensic DNA over the last five or so years. He worked with the New York-based Innocence Project to win the 1999 release of Calvin Johnson, who served 16 years in a Georgia prison on a mistaken rape conviction.

Last year, Hampikian and Burke's project was profiled in the Wall Street Journal. The article spotlighted the growing popularity of such exercises in schools across the nation.

Like Hampikian, Burke said that forensics can be tied in to broader scientific concepts.

For instance, part of the biology curriculum is the study of insects' life cycles. But forensic scientists can determine how long a body has been dead by the developmental stage of insects found on it.

Burke said that the forensics project might be some students' first exposure to this field of science.

"They get to hear of careers in different areas of science that they may never have heard of before," she said.

Some of the students in Burke's classes echoed this assessment of the project.

"I like it because it gives an opportunity to explore something we might like to do later in life," said ninth grader Brittany Lewis.

Ninth grader Nick Langley said he is thinking about getting into police work, particularly crime scene investigations.

"This is helping me to learn about the classes I need to take to do that," he said.

CCSU Director of University Relations John Shiffert said that getting high schoolers to think about their future education is one of the benefits of the project.

"At the very least, it exposes them to college," he said. "We've found that one of the best things we can do as far as our community activities is to bring students onto the campus ? It really does make an impression."

After getting the results of the DNA tests, Burke's students must prepare a case to present to a "grand jury" of SHS' senior Advanced Placement Government classes. Henry County Chief Assistant District Attorney Tom McBerry will act as the "judge" for the presentments.

Those teams of students who get an indictment get extra credit in the project. And just like the real justice system, the forensics project isn't foolproof.

"Sometimes they get an indictment and the suspect is not even the one who did it," Burke said.

But whatever the outcome, Langley said the project has already been an enjoyable n and educational n experience.

"I think it's really cool," he said. "It's a creative way for us to learn all this stuff."