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Junior forensics


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POSTED: Monday, December 01, 2008

It ends with a "dead body" under a sheet.

With a dramatic flair, the teacher, Brother Liam Nolan, pulls the sheet off in a single motion, like a bullfighter or magician with a cape.

There lies a fully dressed female mannequin.

"There's a red mark on her temple where a bullet has entered," said Nolan. "A gun in her hand. ... It looks very real. It's rather exciting," he said. For the next three club meetings, his students have to determine whether the death was murder or suicide.

Welcome to Damien Memorial School's CSI Club.

The popularity of TV police procedurals, notably "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," is behind the club's genesis, said Nolan, who started the after-school activity.

"They're mesmerized by the whole thing," Nolan said. "They love it."

About a dozen boys usually sign up for the club, which covers the basics of forensic science, said Nolan, who has taught chemistry and biology at Damien for 11 years. The club meets once a week during a period of about four months.

He first thought of forming the club after attending a summer class at Chaminade University, which began offering an undergraduate degree in criminal justice in 1995. (The University of Hawaii system began offering the major in 2005.)

Nolan thought his students would enjoy applying what they learn in chemistry and biology to something they were all fascinated by—crime-solving—and that it might lead to a career in forensic science.

Nolan orders five different kits by mail that cover topics such as art forgery detection, handwriting analysis and banned substances. One of the most difficult classes, he said, is trying to determine the age, sex, race and height of a victim by studying the skull, pelvis, humerus (arm) and femur (leg) bones.

The blood samples, drugs, chemicals and bones included in the kits are fake but can simulate appropriate test results.

Eleventh-grader Dakota Keith has been watching the CSI series for about four years, as well as "Criminal Minds" and "Without a Trace." He plans to study forensic science in college.

He said he loves having the opportunity to scrutinize evidence, as well as the challenge of interpreting it correctly in a "real-life kind of experience," instead of just watching TV. The blood and gore in the field poses "no problem" for Keith, who found it fascinating to dissect a frog last year.

Nolan taught Keith how to take precise measurements with a vernier caliper, one of the most difficult techniques to master because there is no room for error, he said.

Royce Worley Jr. and Reyn Quiamno, both juniors, joined the class because it was different from all after-school activities, even if it meant having to learn new math and science skills.

"It's kinda fun and interesting, knowing what they're doing on the TV shows," Quiamno said.

Nolan said students get introduced to a bit of anthropology and new scientific terminology—"tuberosities," "condyle" and "epiphysis," for example—they do not get in regular classes. The club emphasizes problem-solving in small groups.

"Learning should be fun," Nolan said. "If learning is boring, there's not going to be much learning going on."