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CSI Cowichan

Grade 11 forensic science student Niki Crawford examines the stains created by blood dripped from different heights. - Krista Siefken
Grade 11 forensic science student Niki Crawford examines the stains created by blood dripped from different heights.
— image credit: Krista Siefken

Here’s what we know for sure.

There are two skulls in residence at Cowichan Secondary School — one real, one plastic.

Banana DNA looks like snot.

Dusting and lifting fingerprints is a heck of a lot harder than it looks on television, and pigs are used in Canada’s body farm to measure and analyze how human beings decompose.

You may be confused, even a tad horrified, right now.

But the kids in Cow High’s forensic science class certainly aren’t.

They’ve spent the past school year studying bugs from dead bodies, splashing fake blood around the classroom to analyze the stains, and matching bullets with cartridges.

They are students in a one-of-a-kind class developed about four years ago by teacher — and former Canada Customs officer — Alanna Skene.

“I worked for five years as a border guard, so I did a lot of evidence collecting, interrogation, arresting and use-of-force training, and that’s where my interested piqued,” she said.

With a similar fascination for microbiology, it wasn’t long before Skene combined her two interests — criminology and science — to create the Grade 11/12 course at Cowichan secondary.

The high school class is actually based on BCIT’s first-year guidelines for its forensic science degree program.

Students study ballistics, blood evidence, crime scene investigation techniques, trace and impression evidence, criminal profiling and more.

Skene — as well as her temporary maternity-leave replacement, Art Laughland — typically invites a series of guests into the classroom, too.

One is former B.C. fire commissioner — and Skene’s father — Loren Clarkson, who talks to students about fire and arson investigations. Another is local retired RCMP staff sergeant Alain Richard.

“He used to be one of the only blood-stain pattern analysis experts in Canada,” Skene said.

Students also learn how to determine a body’s age, gender and race based on skeletons. For example:

“The real human skull we have in the school here, which goes back to 1952 when the school was built, is an Asian female.”

Skene aimed to make classes hands-on during assignments like the DNA banana lab.

Students blend the fruit, then use a mix of soap, salt and rubbing alcohol to separate its cells.

Under a microscope, they unwind the strings of DNA — which is described as snot-like in appearance.

“You can do that on meat, on human flesh, hair, chickpeas, it doesn’t matter what it is,” Skene said. “As long as it used to be a living organism, you can blend it and do the same process to get the DNA out of it.”

It may seem like morbid subject matter, but it’s all science to the students.

“I liked the ballistics lab,” said Grade 11 student Niki Crawford. “We took a handful of bullets from a bag and then we had to match them.”

She makes it sound simple.

“You look at them under a microscope and match up the striations on them, because the rifling on a gun is individual, like a fingerprint,” she says.

The matching isn’t always easy, of course.

“Sometimes it’s just luck of the draw,” Grade 11 student Auston Wilson added.

“I think forensics can be really random. Sometimes you’re lucky — and sometimes it takes hours.”

The hard work hasn’t deterred Wilson or Crawford, though — both want to pursue the science.

“I was thinking of going more in the psychology direction, so profiling,” Wilson said. “I’m not so much interested in how they do it, but why they do it.”

Crawford, on the other hand, prefers being in a lab rather than collecting often-gory evidence in the field.

Neither seem too fussed by gore, though.

“The majority of the class loved it,” Crawford said. “During the movies we’d all be excited — and Laughland would run and hide. We watched a profile on the guy they based the Texas Chainsaw Massacre on.”

“You can imagine how graphic that was,” Wilson added.

“Yeah,” Crawford agreed. “He kept people in his shed. And he made a skin suit.”

But, students learned, the reality is few will ever get away with crimes like those.

“A lot of people think, ‘I’ve seen every season of CSI, I’m a professional,’” Wilson said. “But if you’re planning on killing someone, even if you wear gloves, the whole suit, don’t drop any DNA, chances are—”

“—it’s almost impossible to get away with it,” Crawford said.

“Yeah. Chances are, they’ll find you.”

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