From popular television shows like Law & Order: SVU to CSI: Miami, forensics has captivated countless audiences by providing a bridge between chemistry and the law. Help Teaching understands the challenges of engaging students in chemistry as a discipline and as a practice. Here are some ideas and strategies to help make chemistry come alive through forensics.
The Importance of Chemistry
Without chemistry, many modern-day forensic techniques would not be possible. Spectrophotometry, for example, uses knowledge of the reaction of substances with light to identify specific drugs, like morphine, present in corpses. Connections like these can help students to see the connection of chemistry to solving crimes and can serve as a way to motivate students every day. When presenting concepts in chemistry, try to find connections to forensic science that put real-world applications of chemistry into perspective. Some examples might include the following:
- The use of chromatography to identify tartrazine (yellow #5 dye in M&M’s that can cause allergic reactions)
- The use of atomic emission in flame tests to identify compounds that are fatal to humans, like potassium chloride
- How arsenic’s chemical and physical properties are used to identify it as the poison responsible for various murders
When making these connections, also be sure to include one or two real-world case studies that involve the concept being explored. This can help students to find concrete meaning and relevance in the topics that they are learning, no matter how abstract. As you read this, you might be thinking to yourself, That’s all well and good, but how do I find these connections? It’s important to consult a variety of web-based resources, both formal and informal, for this purpose. Here are some invaluable resources to help bridge the gap:
- Careers in Forensic Chemistry – What better way to kick off the beginning of the year than by introducing students to the possibility of a career in forensic chemistry? Students will love the idea of being able to work with and analyze blood, poisons, and metals in bullets.
- Chemistry & Forensic Science in America provides a historical timeline of how chemistry was used to make important advances in the field of forensic toxicology. This timeline can be consulted throughout the year as a resource to motivate and intrigue students. Some possible points of interest include an exploration of chemical and physical properties of the element radium in early 20th Century America and an introduction to types of chemical reactions through a discussion of the Marsh Test in detecting the presence of arsenic in human tissue.
Using Forensic Science to Promote Rigor in Chemistry
With increased demands for rigor in the classroom, chemistry teachers also are faced with how to incorporate discussion and literacy, while still delivering content in a relevant and accessible way. Books and literature directly relating chemistry to forensic science provide vantage points from which to plan activities that can promote college and career readiness. Specifically, by identifying the chemical principles and properties involved in forensic techniques, like the Griess test for ballistics analysis, students can begin to think more actively about why knowledge of chemistry matters. At the same time, students can be taught important skills, including annotation and asking questions showing evidence of critical thinking. Having students engage in laboratory activities and write reports centered around the scientific method builds a classroom culture of inquiry-based learning. To foster a culture of rigorous learning that’s also fun and engaging, start with these resources that you can start using in your classroom today:
- The Poisoner’s Handbook can be used as a video to kick off a unit on nuclear chemistry or on the Periodic Table, with a focus on early American medicine. The Poisoner’s Handbook has also been published as a book, which could serve as a book that students refer to throughout the year to encourage discussion and literacy in chemistry to support the Common Core Learning Standards.
- Chymist – Forensic Chemistry provides a list of invaluable resources from which to download class readings and investigations as they relate to important topics in forensic investigation. These articles help to encourage literacy and can serve as introductions to experiments that students conduct in the classroom.
Resources for Forensic Science Lessons in Chemistry
Incorporating forensic science into chemistry requires careful planning to ensure that delivery of content and skills does not fall to the wayside. With this in mind, it’s important to find resources that will help to build and enhance your units of study most effectively. To that effect, below are some key resources that we’ve compiled here at Help Teaching to help you get started:
- ACS: Celebrating Chemistry provides a list of fun and engaging forensics-based activities to try with your class.
- Forensics from nclark.net provides links to a multitude of resources that relate forensic science and chemistry to one another. Using these resources, you can find various experiments and activities to cover topics and skills that are being taught in your classroom, while simultaneously engaging students.
Teaching chemistry to students who have no prior experience can be a daunting task. However, approaching chemistry from the perspective of society and the law can open new doors and leave a lasting effect on students.
Have other ideas about how to teach chemistry through forensics? Share your thoughts and ideas with us in the comments section below. Also, make sure to check out Help Teaching for chemistry worksheets and online chemistry lessons.
Looking for more great science teaching ideas? Read our Ultimate Guide to Teaching Science!