An interesting diversion from what I have seen and experienced so far has been my time at James Enochs High School in Modesto, California. Award-winning science maestro, Dave Menshew introduced me to his forensic science classes this week. This is part of the James Enochs Forensic Biotechnology Career Pathway, a California Partnership Academy, something students sign up to in order to guide their science studies through high school (details of the history of the course, including some metrics about student progress can be found here). My visit was particularly timely as each year they get a table top scanning electron microscope on loan courtesy of President Robert Gordon, of Hitachi High Technologies of America. This device is used to enhance an intense case study based on a real crime using real forensic techniques.
This particular project (I guess it fits into the ‘project based learning’ genre) was developed a few years ago by a small group of students working with Mr. Menshew and has previously been reported in the microscopy education literature. During my visit, students were genuinely excited, they had learned some of the techniques and background theory beforehand and were keen to challenge elements such as witness statements as well as the scientific problems affecting the forensics. They were confident in their questioning and seemed willing and able to learn new techniques pertinent to this particular investigation which takes up two weeks of lesson time as a self-contained project.
The forensic science is a catch all that covers the material in the integrated science standardised test curriculum for California. There is some change happening in the state with adoption of new science curriculum standards but Mr. Menshew is confident that they have been working above and beyond the curriculum anyway so any governmental change will not affect the program. What is interesting is the apparent difficulty in attracting teachers to teach on such a broad course requiring experience and qualifications in numerous disciplines. Mr. Menshew doesn’t see this as a problem personally, although given the popularity of his classes (42 students in one session alone) the students were extremely busy going from experiment to experiment while working on their case timelines. Exacerbating the problem was the public holiday this week meaning they didn’t all get enough time to really familiarise themselves with the on-loan microscope.
Where does the real research equipment come in? Actually, in the whole course. While they don’t have an SEM ‘in house’, they have a great relationship with Hitachi who know that Mr. Menshew’s ‘forensic biology’ club will be using the microscope for outreach events during the time it is at the school, thus adding extra value to the loan. There are plenty of other techniques on the course that are used in the day to day life of a forensic officer or lab worker hence everything they do is a real research technique. Within the curriculum are biology and chemistry experiments, some of which involving equipment that Mr. Menshew has managed to acquire through grant funding. In his lab are several pieces of biological research equipment that can be used for everything from gel imaging to DNA barcoding (rather important for forensics!)
An interesting aside to the academy course and the forensic biology club is a small project with Duarte Farms. This local, family run nursery produces a variety of nut trees for sale commercially and runs a particularly lovely line in poinsettias at Christmas time, sold below market price to the local community. Through summer research work that David Menshew himself has been involved with the laboratories at Duarte headed up by Dr. Kendall Ash and Research Lab Manager Kyle Jones have developed a project assessing the salt tolerance of varieties of pistachio, a hot topic for the farming communities up and down California in light of the years of drought they have suffered.
Students at James Enochs have space in the school agricultural facility to conduct a trial. Seniors Nathan Balam and Justin Tugman are heading up the Enochs team and while they don’t necessarily want to go into agriculture (in Nathan’s case he is keen on robotics) they very much see the value in the opportunity, I honestly could have made up the quotes but I didn’t, I was amused and delighted that they mentioned that they “learn by doing” and working with industry directly meant that the project was “fast paced” and more candidly from Nathan “I don’t like learning stuff I’m never going to use“.
So again, I find myself at a school that is not simplifying things for the students, not using ‘versions’ of the real thing – those on the forensics academy program get college credits if they pass the course (I assume because they are learning many of the techniques that professional forensics experts use.) It was a delight to meet Dave and his department at James Enochs High School.
I can’t leave this particular blog post without mentioning the huge amount of outreach work Dave Menshew and his students do. He is, like all the great teachers I’ve seen on this journey, a facilitator. Often the events are a long distance away and require resources that have to be purchased outside of regular school budgets – a combination of grants, earnings from some of the special events and a strange teacher-only version of the popular day time show ‘Supermarket Sweep‘ at local big-Pharmaceutical companies (where teachers can pick up lab equipment for free for their schools – amazing!) allows David and his team of willing students to keep demonstrating science all across the region.
My visit featured in a local newspaper article for the Modesto Bee…