Forensic science is hot new thing


Christine Grace, 16, traces her interest in blood splatters, tire tracks and ballistics to the night when she saw these detectives solving the most heinous murder by the thread of a single hair. She was watching the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

"I was just, like, how could they solve crimes from a hair?" Christine said.

Last fall, she enrolled in a new forensic science class at Dulaney High School in Timonium, and ever since, she has wanted to be a forensic scientist, collecting evidence at crime scenes.

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Forensic science is all the rage, as high schoolers such as Christine have been inspired by well-publicized trials and by television to study the fine points of fingerprints and to dream of careers swabbing saliva.

Educators say they haven't seen such attention paid to a science since young Americans dreamed of space in the 1960s. And practitioners turn incredulous when asked whether there's a national trend here.

"Are you kidding?" said Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic scientist and associate provost at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, whose forensic science program has doubled in size over the past five years to 800 students.

"You've got kids coming out of Ivy League colleges that are interested in forensics," said Kobilinsky, president of the Council of Forensic Education. "Before, you know, it was, 'I want to be a doctor or lawyer.' Now, it's, 'I want to be a forensic scientist.'"

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But piqued by trials including O.J. Simpson's and engrossed by television shows featuring forensic science such as Law & Order and Crossing Jordan, interested youths are showing up faster than a latent fingerprint on Formica.

Solving the puzzle

"It's kind of like a big puzzle, and you get to put the pieces together," said Christine, who's from Cockeysville. She had been thinking vaguely of becoming a doctor before watching the first episode three years ago of CSI with her mother, who works in insurance.

In classrooms, forensic science is now one subject that excites even jaded youths. From Boston to Seattle, thousands of schools and colleges around the country have established courses in response to an outpouring of student interest.

The Bronx High School of Science has four forensic biology classes with 120 students taking the full-year course.

In Maryland last year, the University of Baltimore started a forensic science program, whose offer of internships at the Baltimore police crime lab and a bachelor's degree has enticed 35 students to enroll this year.

Public schools in Howard County teach forensic science, and some teachers in Harford County have units in their regular science classes. The Anne Arundel County school system is considering adding a course.

Eastern Technical High School has one of Baltimore County's oldest forensic science courses. Now in its fifth year of instruction, it's a yearlong honors class that has 75 seniors taking science even after finishing their requirement.

"The whole topic of solving crimes is interesting to kids anyway, and when you see how all of the evidence builds in a case and what tests you can run and see how all other sciences apply, it really is interesting to kids," said Mary J. Monte, the forensic science teacher at Eastern Tech.

Patapsco High School in Dundalk had to turn away more than 140 students who wanted to enroll in its two half-year forensics classes, which started this year.

The subject has proliferated so rapidly that there isn't a good high school textbook yet.

"What we use day to day is what we've found and things that we've developed," said John L. Lindberg, who teaches two forensic science classes at Loch Raven High School in Towson.

Lindberg, who had his students analyzing tool marks recently, teaches by using sample cases that he finds on the Internet. He must use a college criminology textbook and asks students to watch such shows as Court TV's Forensic Files on cable television.

Free curriculum

After discovering that forensic science teachers were taping Forensic Files to show to their classes, Court TV developed a forensic science curriculum last fall.

More than a thousand of the nation's 7,500 forensic science teachers have downloaded the free curriculum from the network's Web site, and a thousand more are expected to follow before this school year ends.

"In the 1960s, [President John F.] Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon, and kids studied science like our nation depended on it," said Evan Shapiro, senior vice president for marketing at Court TV. "Forensics has become the new space race, meaning it's drawing everybody into science."

The subject's spread has brought its share of worries.

Forensic science teachers who staged mock murders at their schools have been criticized.

"What I hear is that kids would rather take forensic science over biology, physics and chemistry," said Kobilinsky of the Council of Forensic Education. "I don't know if that's really good.

"I would always encourage kids to get a good background in basic science."

And veterans say teen-agers will get the wrong impression if they think television accurately portrays forensic police work.

"I don't go out and arrest people, do psychological profiles, have a beer with everybody and do it all in an hour," said John J. Tobin, acting director of the Maryland State Police Crime Lab, who was shuffling papers behind a desk on a recent visit.

But the reality hasn't deterred Erica Carnes, a 17-year-old from Arbutus who is interning at the lab.

Erica had always been interested in science as she grew up, but she didn't know what to make of her interest until she discovered the wonders of autopsies while studying anatomy at Western School of Technology in Catonsville.

Because Erica doesn't have a degree in forensic science, her work at the lab has consisted of filing negatives, organizing journals and other routine work.

But far from deterring Erica from forensic science, the experience has strengthened her commitment to a career as a medical examiner.

"A lot of people think it's gross, but most know that's me," Erica said. "Like my best friend wants to be a doctor, and she's, like, 'If something goes wrong, they'll come to you.'"

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