Mill Creek forensics class catches on, challenges its young scientists

When Mill Creek science teacher Connie Franks was asked to come up with an elective class, she wasn't expecting her rigorous forensic science class to get approved, much less become one of the most popular classes at the downtown middle school.

The class teaches eighth-graders about biology and biochemistry in a way they can practically apply to each lesson during the day.

"It really puts your brain to work," said Grant Staton, one of Franks' students. "It's very challenging but very rewarding."

The class has received such a good reception that parents will fight to keep their students in the classroom, sometimes making significant sacrifices to stay in the Mill Creek area.

"One mom said she didn't move from her apartment," Franks said, "so that was really a lot of pressure on me!"

Franks, who has been teaching science in the Kent School District for 15 years, got the idea after studying at the Fred Hutchinson Science Education Partnership, a professional development class at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The course provides a number of advanced lab training to science teachers, ranging from handwriting analysis to even low level genetic engineering.

Through her studies, she gained access to the center's technology, which she can rent out and use in her own classes.

To guide her students through the work, Franks has her class focus on three specific areas: deductive reasoning and logical thinking, understanding biochemistry, and applying the two for practical forensic labs.

"They kind of do a combination of just using the biotechnology to do forensics and then also to do scientific research and genetic engineering and things like that," Franks said.

For the deductive portion of her class, she creates assignments such as mystery handouts that require deductive reasoning. After getting their heads around the thought process, students move on to study the mechanics behind a lab, such as how antibodies bind to a virus and can be used as indicators, and finally use the knowledge practically.

They recently used what they learned to test whether a cat, and the bird it had eaten, carried the H5N1 avian flu virus. Other labs the students will take part in include blood spatter analysis, a murder mystery, DNA fingerprinting (breaking down a DNA strand to get a unique personal identifier), and even low level genetic manipulation of "plasmids" to make them bioluminescent.

The applied exercises are also helpful for many of her students who would otherwise

struggle in a traditional environment. When she hands out a brain teaser exercise, every student in the class gets to work.

"We do a lot of brain challenges, and boy the minute I hand them one, you can hear a pin drop in here," she says, "they're so into it."

Franks has found several unexpected benefits from the class's nonstandard format. The more open atmosphere has encouraged her gifted students to engage more with each other and discuss their knowledge, and students that would typically struggle in school do well by working with high achieving students.

The class is made up of a number of different students, not all of which are AP or honors achievers. Some struggle in other classes but she says that she hasn't had any issues i

One of the biggest lessons Franks has learned from the class is how useful it is to combine high performing and struggling students to help each other learn. While not all of the students are high performing or honors level students, she sees the advanced students act as leaders that help bring other students up to their level.

In the next year, Franks hopes to expand the class if she can get time for it. She'd also like to get more professionals helping out in the course to give a living example of what students can do with the skills they learn.

But tackling those challenges will have to wait until she finishes her mystery murder lab.

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