NOTE: Only general ideas are given for this theme. Be sure to explore ideas online or at your local library.
1. Have you seen it?
Many factual and fictional television shows work with forensics. Forensics is about making observations and matching what you find. Watch a few episodes so you are familiar with the words and concepts behind this science. How might you use ideas from the shows as a basis for your detective exhibit?
2. Forensic scientist.
The term forensic scientist is actually a general term for a multitude of different careers. This includes:
- Bloodstain pattern analyst
- Digital forensic expert
- Forensic accountant
- Forensic anthropologist
- Forensic ballistic expert
- Forensic DNA analyst
- Forensic document examiner
- Forensic pathologist
- Forensic toxicologist
- Trace evidence analyst
Depending on the career path, you may use chemistry, biology, toxicology, entomology, math, problem-solving and even observation to discover the truth. Examine the different ways you can work in forensics. These will help you add dimension to your Science Center.
3. Asking questions.
Always ask questions. Do not tell anyone they are wrong, no matter how outlandish. Pay attention to how people act as their physical actions may say that they’re not telling the truth. This testimonial gives you a starting point to look for alibis (proof someone was elsewhere) and more as a way to show how people observe differently.
Play Kim’s Game. See how many items each person can remember from a card or tray. How else might you show how people remember things differently?
All of your senses come into play when you are observing the scene of a crime. Forensic scientists and detectives take a lot of photos. They catch things you might not see. These help support your observational skills. Providing a minibook with questions or hints to help your visitors observe more deeply may increase how active they are with your Science Center.
As you are observing, you should be making theories. It might be how someone entered or exited a scene. Items might be missing, as in the case of theft. People may have fought as evidenced by a lot of destruction. Provide photos for reference and come up with theories of what could have happened.
Documenting a scene includes the recording of your interviews (questions), photos of the area or evidence in place before it is collected for deeper examination, sketches and more. In extreme cases, your documentation may include a full recreation of the area where the crime took place.
Provide an area for your visitors to document. The, give them one of your own for comparison. Let them look at the scene again.
Fingerprints are a combination of loops, whorls and arches. No two people have the same patterns. Learn how to make good fingerprint patterns. Use full and partial prints for comparison. Discuss how someone can avoid leaving behind fingerprints. Try dusting and lifting prints. What other ways can you use prints in your exhibit?
8. Trace evidence.
Trace evidence is small evidence that can link a suspect to a crime. This might include:
- Hairs (people and animals)
- Plants (seeds, leaves, etc.)
- Rocks, stones and gravel
- Shoe / boot impressions
- Tire impressions
You can collect samples and compare them as part of your exhibit. You will need a microscope or enlarged images of your trace evidence to allow for comparison. You can also make impressions to have on hand for footwear and tire marks. What else might you include to support trace evidence?
9. DNA / genetics.
Like fingerprints, DNA is unique . . . unless you have identical twins. DNA can determine who has been at a crime scene. For an experiment, you can extract DNA from cheek cells. Explore other ways to incorporate DNA into your Science Center.
10. Blood spatter.
Not only do experts look at the blood stain patterns, they work to recreate them as part of solving crime. It is preferable to “make” blood for any exercises as even animal’s blood can carry disease. Recreate the following blood patterns and explain why they occur, then provide a scene and see what your visitors can extrapolate from the splatter.
- Low velocity patterns
- Medium velocity patterns
- High velocity patterns
- Angular drops
- Blood into blood
- Swipe patterns
Also known as forensic anthropology, the study of bones can show the race, age and sex of a human body or remains. Medical and dental records are also used to help identify a body. Try an experiment with matching bite marks using styrofoam plates or soft candies. Compare your marks with another’s. You can show how to tell the basics of a victim plus items that help identify more like breaks, pins, etc.
Using the body for evidence is pathology. A pathologist is a doctor who conducts autopsies. You might be able to dissect an animal to see it on the inside, see a video of it being done or get short clips from actual autopsies. Be aware of the ages of your visitors as some of them may find looking at dead bodies disturbing.
For younger visitors ask volunteers to act out a scene and have your visitors describe the people in it including hair color, jaw shape, and other physical characteristics. When they’re done, take the criteria they establish and see how many people at each stage fit that item. For example, if someone says brown hair, everyone in the group with brown hair is a suspect. Continue narrowing it down so they can see how matching works to solve the crime.
Using bugs as part of your detective skills is entomology. Using insect life cycles, investigators can determine the time of death. To simulate this, use a stuffed animal for the victim and cards with pictures of the insects in their different stages on them. The cards can also be used to explain the different stages blowflies and beetles go through and how the stage they are helps determine a timeline.
Examining drugs, poisons and other items in a body can help determine cause. A toxicologist needs to know the harmful effects of these items. One way to show this is to test antifreeze against common drinks to determine the pH and identify the poison. Explore different ways you can show toxicology to your visitors.
15. Physical documents.
Whether it’s fraud, forgery or even a ransom note, detectives determine whether a document is authentic or not. It includes analyzing handwriting to make sure it matches a sample and even testing the inks (chromatography) may yield information. To show this, you can create items yourself to compare signatures only, full letters and more. See “Science Center X: Color” for a bit on chromatography.
16. Firearms and tools.
The marks left by a tool or a bullet can help match remaining items with the tool. You might create a matching game so the marks can be compared to tools on hand such as a hammer, crowbar, etc. Can your visitors identify the items from the marks they leave behind?
17. Forensically (beta).
This online software is a set of free tools for digital image forensics. It allows you to determine if a digital image has been altered. Check out the tutorial for information on this software as well as information on different ways images can be manipulated.
Stage the Scene
18. Static scene.
Create a static scene that shows elements of the crime. Include the items above and see if they can solve the crime you give them or even figure out the clues.
19. Murder mystery party game.
Use a murder mystery party game to simulate a murder and subsequent investigation. If you plan to do this, make sure you have plenty of time to complete the game.
20. Explore more!
Look through the other Science Center X for items that might be incorporated with this badge program or search online to build an even better detective Science Center.
- Some shows and sites to start learning about forensics
- Minibook: Beginners Fingerprinting
- How much can you remember? Roleplay a scene then find out what your eyewitnesses remember
- Scramble: Detect It
- Word Find: Detect It!
- Exhibit Planner — Pre-planning and testing questions
- Scientific Inquiry — Printables for use with any exhibit theme
Sites to Explore
To download a PDF of this badge program, click here: EP_SCX_Detective