Getting to the bare bones of science - with a little help from the stars of TV forensics

16th March 2012 at 00:00
Programmes such as CSI can provide a hook to capture pupils' interest in pure science

Professor Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist and I consider myself very lucky for having had the privilege of hearing her speak on her subject a couple of times. The last occasion was at the Association for Science Education's annual conference in March. If you're reading this, Professor Black, I'm the one you punched on the arm while we were adjusting your laptop.

Forensic anthropology involves identifying people. They may be dead or parts of them may feature in an image of horrific abuse. Despite working in this field, and despite her never trivialising the nature of her work, Professor Black made her audience laugh loud and often.

She was scathing concerning the way some universities have jumped on the CSI bandwagon, hooking students in by incorporating the word "forensics" in course titles. She listed a few of her favourites, including "Movement, Dance and Forensics" and "Early Christian Doctrine with Forensics". I'm sure my new electronic ears heard her correctly when she quoted senior law officers who said that they would be unlikely to employ anyone with an undergraduate degree that incorporated the word "forensics" in the title, preferring pure science every time.

Now, bear with me while I appear to go off at a tangent (other trigonometric functions are available). If you work in a secondary school, nip down to the science department if you're unlucky enough not to be a scientist, and ask someone for a Pyrex test tube (other types of glass are available, but they don't do what Pyrex does in this particular situation) and put it in some glycerol. There you go - it's not every day you see something invisible. Finding a liquid that a particular type of glass will vanish in forms the basis of a forensic technique for identifying glass at a crime scene. It is also a beautifully engaging way of introducing the topic of refraction. My colleague has developed an activity on the theme.

Speaking to Professor Black after her talk, when she had clearly forgiven me for the irritating behaviour worthy of the arm punch, I asked her if she thought we were as guilty as the aforementioned universities when it came to jumping on the CSI bandwagon. I'm happy to report that she didn't. She had no problem with popular, wildly unrealistic TV programmes being used as a hook, as long as it was pure science that the children were being hooked into. Relieved, I decided that it was best not to tell her that I often watch CSI: New York, albeit only for the scenery that evokes memories of a couple of very happy holidays. And the hilariously contrived and improbable crimes.

Gregor Steele REALLY wants you to see the disappearing Pyrex experiment

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

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