Kayla Harwood peered down at a sheet covered with black ink fingerprints.
She’d just finished making a “10 sheet,” a card bearing her own prints, a unique collection of whorls, loops, and arches.
“Before this class, I had no idea about fingerprints. They were just there, on the tips of my fingers, and I didn’t think about them at all,” said Harwood, a senior who loves shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order.”
Now she’s learning about investigative techniques firsthand in teacher Kim Malobabic’s forensic science course at Amherst Steele High School, and said analyzing evidence could become her career.
Malobabic, who holds a degree in microbiology from Ohio State University, was inspired to launch the elective after attending a conference in 2014. It was presented by Anthony Bertino and Patricia Nolan Bertino, authors of the textbook now used by her class of 24.
Students also read “Picking Cotton,” the New York Times best-seller about the friendship between rape victim Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, who was wrongfully convicted of the crime. He was later exonerated by DNA evidence. Class time is also spent watching “Lie to Me,” a fictional Fox series about “deception expert” Cal Lightman, who unravels mysteries by examining suspects’ facial expressions and body language.
The curriculum covers analysis of ballistics, glass shatter, blood splatter, teeth, DNA, and hair.
So far this year, fingerprinting has captured the interest of juniors and seniors in the class. Every finger is different, said Malobabic — even for identical twins.
But first investigators must find fingerprints, and Malobabic tells her students the first step to crime-solving is thinking like a criminal.
“You can’t see the fingerprints. You have to first figure out where they are. Where would a criminal be? What would they touch?” she said.
They’ve also learned that what you think you see isn’t always what happened. Eyewitness accounts of crimes are horribly unreliable; the class learned that 75 percent of eyewitness accounts are plain wrong, a figure backed by scientists and lawyers.
To illustrate the point, Malobabic arranged for a screamer — that is, someone to appear for less than a second in the classroom doorway, shriek, and bolt. Students had to try to identify the screamer from a line-up and learned line-ups are not very credible.
The class has changed the career plans of at least one student. Senior Rachel Work had originally wanted to major in neuroscience, but now sees herself as a forensic photographer, possibly for the FBI.
“It’s really cool how you have to approach a crime scene and not touch anything,” she said. “Everything there tells a story.”
Looking at two universities that offer forensic science majors, she’s also interested in forensic psychology, saying probing the workings of a criminal’s mind would be fascinating.
The appeal is puzzles. Work said she enjoys breaking down data and clues. It’s a challenged that has sharpened her mind in Malobabic’s class, she said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
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