By Daniel I. Dorfman
Jackie Gnant has been a teacher for 17 years. Many times she’s had to respond to a student inquiry of, “Why do we have to learn this?”
In her forensic science class, that question has an easy answer.
“Forensics is a great way to say, remember in physics when we said why you had to learn about trajectories, here is why,” Gnant says. “You can figure out where a bullet came from. Remember when you had to learn about DNA? Here is why, you can figure out if the blood came from the person you thought it came from.”
Armed with that piece of practicality, Gnant now in her eighth year at New Trier High School, has for the last five years been guiding students through the mysteries of forensic science. It is not exactly a coincidence that students have become enamored with that subject given the corresponding interest in Hollywood starting a generation ago with Jack Klugman starring in Quincy M.E. leading to any number of current shows.
"I know I have done my job when you walk into class and say I can’t watch CSI anymore because I know how wrong it is.”
The way Gnant sees it, that interest can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, students are attracted to the course. On the other side, it is television and the stories are wedged into a nice, neat 60-minute package, leaving accuracy a little frayed.
“One of the things I have to work through at the beginning of the school year is I say we are not going to just sit here and watch CSI,” Gnant said. “We actually do science. I also tell the kids I know I have done my job when you walk into class and say I can’t watch CSI anymore because I know how wrong it is.”
True crime also an appeal
While fictionalized cases of the small and big screen are enticing, the students are also attracted by real life crimes that dominate the news. There was lots of interest in the OJ Simpson case, despite the fact that the teenagers were not even being born at the time of the June 1994 murders. A more recent example was this year’s Trayvon Martin legal case in Florida.
“As things come up in the news, I have to adjust and explain things the kids have heard about and don’t understand,” Gnant said.
To immerse themselves in the subject, Gnant is engaging her two classes both with the textbook and in the lab. Recently, Gnant was looking to put into evidence Locard’s Principle, which in real-person terms boils down to, “anytime two things come in contact there is going to be a transfer.”
To show how that principle would work, Gnant assigned her 22 students to wear a brand new white t-shirt for a whole day, writing down every place they went and then putting the shirt into an evidence bag. On this day, the students are now taking the shirts out of the bag for the first time and going over it.
“They are looking for that trace evidence on their shirts, they are try to figure out what part of their day, what piece of evidence that came from and what it is,” Gnant said. “Is it a hair, is it a piece of fiber, is this a piece of dog hair from my friend’s house? They are looking for the transfer.”
The goal of this exercise is to show the class that the shirt may look clean to the untrained eye, that isn’t the case to the potential scientists.
“I hope that they learn that they may look at something and think there is no evidence there and when they look closer, there actually is something there,” Gnant said.
‘It’s OK to be wrong, it’s not OK to not to try’
Despite her small frame, Gnant’s voice booms throughout the class. She is part cheerleader, part drill sergeant. At one point she assures her students, “everyone of you will get into college!” When another student is doubting whether he can get the work done, Gnant says to him, “Stop saying you can’t do it, just do it!”
“Sometimes kids are really intimidated by this stuff because it seems really difficult and they don’t even want to try,” Gnant says. “My big thing as a teacher is they really have to at least try. I say all the time, it’s OK to be wrong, it’s not OK to not to try.”
If teachers are looking for success stories, Gnant may have one in Anabel Kane, 17, who has built on her interest in criminology. “I’m really into the minds of serial murderers and case studies and what is driven behind murders and what not,” Kane said.
Hollywood was the launching pad for her interest in the course, specifically the program Criminal Minds.
Kane started looking into forensics as a hobby. When she saw the course being offered, she jumped.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to do during school and make it productive?”
That fun and enthusiasm has produced good grades so far. “I sucked at science before but now I am getting an A,” Kane relates.
Then there is Logan Mounts, whose shoulder length hair has been part of his persona he says since the 8th grade. He is going over his T-shirt looking at small hairs trying to piece together his day.
Mounts was interested in the course because he liked the Showtime program Dexter. But that show did not prepare for all that is required to know about forensic science. “There are a lot more aspects to this class than I think people anticipated,” he said. “It is very collaborative in a lot of projects where you have a lot of people doing a lot of projects.”
Gnant likes what she sees from her students and how they accept challenges.
“One of the things that is cool about this class is every kid no matter who they are finds something they are really good and something they are really bad at,” Gnant said. What is really fun is to see the kid who has been fantastic in science their whole life be terrible at something and then side by side that kid who has hated science their whole life is fantastic at the same thing. Then they look at each other and say this is a complete role reversal. It is fun as a teacher to see that happen.”