Year nine Geelong High School students look at a skeleton in the forensic lab at Deakin University in Geelong. Photo: Jason SouthOn Thursday, Sam Clark, 14, helped solve a murder. By analysing the blood spatter, Sam and his colleagues – year nine students from Geelong High School – deduced the murder weapon was a sledgehammer. They lifted fingerprints from a soft-drink can and a wine bottle. And from examining a skull, arm and leg bones – “in this case, the humerus” – they determined the victim to be an Asian male who was 1.6 metres tall.
He’d been dead a while, this man. “It was pretty cool to know you can age a dead body using maggots,” Sam said.
It was also cool making friends with the maggots. “We painted with them… dipping them in ink and letting them run free over the paper.”
And on it went, another grisly day at Deakin University’s forensic laboratory and crime-scene house. Most of the year, this is where undergraduate forensic scientists learn their craft. During the mid-semester break, school groups are invited in to play detective and get their hands dirty – all in the name of promoting science as a potential career option for teenagers.
Says Dr Michelle Harvey, senior lecturer in forensic science: “It’s not so much about enlisting them as forensic scientists… but to get them thinking objectively and to experience a university laboratory setting.”
The maggots are always a hit – “the gross factor” – particularly with the girls. “We bathe the maggots and pat them dry before giving them to the students,” says Harvey. “And then we bathe them again afterward.”
When working through the murder scenario, the students are told to focus on the physical evidence, and not worry so much about motivation. But the students were keen to know.
“We made guesses and we were all wrong in the end,” says Sam.
They worked out that a park ranger was having an affair with a hermit, and this tawdry fact had been discovered by a friend of the ranger’s girlfriend. “We assumed the hermit was a man, but it turned out the hermit was a woman. So… we learnt not to assume things.”
One might assume Sam’s class were converted en masse to crime fighting – and that would be wrong. “There were a few people asking questions about how to get rid of the body and how can you clean blood spatters effectively? And can you trick the computers into thinking a different weapon was used.”
Hey, it’s an education.
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