by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education
We’ve introduced a pretty unorthodox summer camp for middle school-aged kids this summer: CSI: Crime Scene Insects. Clearly, awareness of crime scene investigation is on the rise, as evidenced by the popularity of many TV shows (CSI, NCIS, Bones, and many more) with this focus. But beyond entertainment, forensic investigations can create a context for engaging students in science and mathematics (disciplines where many U.S. students lag behind those in other countries). So we’re jumping on the bandwagon (or maybe I should say coroner’s van?) to make science and math interesting, challenging, and fun through forensics.
I had the privilege of meeting Dr. M. Lee Goff in the summer of 2004, when the museum where I worked hosted an exhibit about forensic entomology (loosely translated: the study of insects as they pertain to the law and crime investigation). Dr. Goff is one of the foremost forensic entomologists in the world and is the person on which the Gil Grissom character of CSI is based. Dr. Goff consulted with me on the creation of a forensic entomology program, which I have refined and re-introduced here as a three-day long “mini-camp” for students between 5th and 8th grades.
For the camp, students learn about the various species of arthropods that aid in the recycling of remains back to the environment. The arrival of these species to bodies, human or animal, follows predictable patterns and durations. With consideration to the variables present at each crime scene (temperature, relative humidity, and more), an accurate time frame since the death event can be determined for remains.
During the camp, the students try to determine the “time since death” for two case studies based on insect specimens we collect from the rats and identify with the aid of a microscope. To create our “crime scene,” we placed humanely euthanized rats (sold at the pet store as reptile food) in cages to prevent larger scavengers from accessing the remains, and allowed the insects and other arthropods do their work. The first fly arrived within 7 minutes of placing the first rat outside.
Yes, it can be “gross” and yes, the smell at the end of the bloat stage can be pretty strong, but the process of decay is fascinating. Our civilized society has made decomposition a taboo subject of conversation, not talked about or even acknowledged. Certainly, very few of us have observed decomposition beyond accidentally coming across a deceased critter while on a hike. Death is a scary and uncomfortable subject, but it is part of life and decomposition is a natural process. Sometimes, a scary subject is more so because we lack knowledge about it, and I think we are helping to lift the veil off this taboo subject. The students in our camp now have more knowledge about this part of the cycle of life and death, and we snuck lessons in science and math, too.
If you are in town and wish to see our “crime scene,” stop by the Museum during our regular business hours! The next session of “Crime Scene Insects” is June 28-30.