Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity
Diablo Highway contains 11 lessons and nine lab activities for middle and high school students based on the infamous unsolved Frome murders in March 1938 on a desert road in Southwest Texas. The activity is problem-based learning (PBL) that compels the application of science and is aligned with grade-appropriate NGSS standards. This is an online activity that students access via a web browser on any device connected to the internet including desktops, laptops, tablets, Chromebooks or smartphones.
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- Crime Scene Mapping
- Blood Typing
- Hair Analysis
- Fingerprint Analysis
- DNA Profiling
- Shoe Impression
- Tire Impression
- Fiber Analysis
- Firearms Identification
- Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity strongly supports the first dimension in learning specified in the NGSS - Science and Engineering Practices.
The eight Science and Engineering Practices identified in the NGSS framework as essential for all students to learn are listed below followed by the specific way in which Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity supports and promotes this practice:
- Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering) – The essential question for students conducting the Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity Lab activity is Who committed the crime? In order to answer that question, the students must ask themselves: How can I determine who committed the crime? and then through a series of lessons and lab activities they learn the science, apply the science, gather and interpret data and come to a reasoned determination based on evidence. In Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity, the questions arise from the need to solve a problem.
- Developing and using models – One of the key models used by students in Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity is the crime scene map. All the evidence is mapped here which forms the basis for the student's investigation and their resulting determinations. According to the NGSS, a diagram is considered a model. This model can show relationships among variables. In a simple example, what is the relationship between a sample of hair evidence belonging to one of the victims and the location in which it was found?
- Planning and carrying out investigations – There are nine engaging lab activities in Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity. Teachers can choose to have students work individually or in groups to encourage collaborative problem-solving.
- Analyzing and interpreting data – In all of the Diablo Highway labs, students gather data in the course of their investigation, analyze it and interpret their data. This interpretation becomes the raw material in constructing the narrative of the crime and, ultimately, the arrival at a determination as to who may have committed this crime and how.
- Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering) – At the conclusion of the Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity lab, many teachers ask their students to write a report summarizing the results of their investigation including the evidence to support their determinations.
- Engaging in argument from evidence – Because the Frome murders on which Diablo Highway is based is an unsolved case, there is no “right answer” to the investigation that the students are lead to. They must choose the culprit and then support their conclusion – make their argument – based on the evidence they discovered and analyzed. It is quite common for students in the same class to credibly argue a case that points to different culprits.
- Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information – Throughout all nine of the lab activities in Diablo Highway, students evaluate the evidence from the crime scene, analyze this evidence in the lab and record this data. This data is compared with data from the control samples and a determination is made as to whom evidence may have originated.
- In the Diablo Highway lab activities, the following labs support NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:
- The Story of the Crime
- Blood Typing - PS1.2: Chemical Reactions
- Hair Analysis
- Fingerprint Analysis
- DNA Profiling - LS3: Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits
- Shoe Impressions - PS2-3: Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
- Tire Impressions - PS2-3: Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
- Fiber Analysis
- Firearms Identification - PS2.1: Forces and Motion
- The NGSS defines crosscutting concepts as those that “unify the study of science and engineering through their common application across fields.” The NGSS Framework recommends that science lessons, labs and activities are embedded with these crosscutting concepts through all grades because they:
- Help students better understand core ideas in science and engineering
- Help students better understand science and engineering practices
- Help to build familiarity with these concepts through repetition in different contexts
- Extend their growth in complexity and sophistication across the grades
- Can provide a common vocabulary for science and engineering
- Are for all students
- Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation
- Systems and System Models
1. Crosscutting Concepts - Cause and Effect: Mechanism and ExplanationCause and effect: Mechanism and Explanation. “Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts.” In Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity, the effect is the unnatural death of the two victims. Who committed this crime? and How did this happen? are the two guiding questions in the investigation to determine the cause of this effect. To do so, students must engage in a series of scientifically-based lab activities which include:
- The Story of the Crime
- Blood Typing
- Hair Analysis
- Fingerprint Analysis
- DNA Profiling
- Shoe Impressions
- Tire Impressions
- Fiber Analysis
- Firearms Identification
“When students engage in scientific argumentation, it is often centered about identifying the causes of an effect.”Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity addresses this as well. In the culminating report, students present their case and supporting data. This compels them to argue from evidence when attributing evidence to an owner. Further supporting the NGSS, solving this case helps students to understand that empirical evidence is required to differentiate between causation and correlation. It is made clear to the student, for example, that evidence found on the victims, is a correlative connection to an individual but is not a causative connection between that individual and the murder of the two victims. Additional corroborative evidence is necessary to prove causation.
2. Crosscutting Concepts - Systems and System ModelsThe NGSS defines Systems and System Models as: “Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.” Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity reinforces the crosscutting concept of Systems and System Models. In Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity, the crime scene map becomes an essential model throughout the activity and particularly when students must “Construct and present arguments using evidence to support the claim.” This map supports the following notion articulated in the NGSS:
“In the laboratory or even in field research, the extent to which a system under study can be physically isolated or external conditions controlled is an important element of the design of an investigation and interpretation of results.”
- Diablo Highway also helps to reinforce the nature of scientific enterprise which the NGSS recognizes as being essential for every educated citizen.
The eight basic understandings about the Nature of Science as outlined by the NGSS are presented below in a matrix that demonstrates the way in which Diablo Highway supports each of these understandings:
- Scientific Investigations Use a Variety of Methods
- Diablo Highway students use a variety of methods in the lab activities. In the case of the Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity, these include observation, critical analysis, data recording and comparative analysis. Conducting the Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity lab, students use a variety of virtual tools including a microscope, forceps, and duster.
- Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence
- In Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity, students conduct close analyses and interpretation of data for the evidence and the control samples and accurately record their findings. The students’ determinations as to whom a piece of evidence might be associated with and ultimately who may have committed the crime are based on and supported by evidence – not speculation. In short, students make and defend a claim based on evidence and thereby come to understand the difference between cause and correlation.
- Scientific Knowledge is Open to Revision in Light of New Evidence
- If the initial analysis of some of the evidence is tending toward a determination, students are compelled to withhold final determination until all the evidence and control samples have been analyzed.
- Scientific Models, Laws, Mechanisms, and Theories Explain Natural Phenomena
- Students use the map of the crime scene as the framework for the entire lab activity. As the evidence, analysis and determinations construct the narrative of the crime, it must be based cogently within the framework of this primary model.
- Science is a Way of Knowing
- The determinations arrived at through the conduct of forensic science forms a narrative, an explanation, of the phenomenon that had occurred – the unnatural death of Hazel and Nancy Frome. Using the modern tools and techniques of today’s forensic scientists, students compare their findings with other class members and with the professional investigators who worked the case in the 1930s.
- Scientific Knowledge Assumes an Order and Consistency in Natural Systems
- The forensic science labs conducted by students during this investigation reinforces this notion of an order and consistency in natural systems. The nature of fingerprints is such that fingerprints are unique, that they can be systematically identified and do not change over the duration of an individual’s lifetime. This is consistent.
- Scientific knowledge is based on the assumption that natural laws operate today as they did in the past and they will continue to do so in the future. (HS-LS4-1),(HSLS4-4)
- In Diablo Highway students use the modern knowledge, skills and tools of forensic science and apply them to this criminal case from long ago, 1938. During the conduct of the labs, this assumption is affirmatively reinforced repeatedly: that the natural laws that operate today do so as they did in 1938.
- Science is a Human Endeavor
- What is particularly beneficial about Diablo Highway is that the notion that science is a human endeavor put to the task of human betterment is strongly reinforced. Here, science can help determine the perpetrators of an horrific act of violence against two innocent human beings. Teachers are encouraged to have students and/or student/groups share their approaches and their findings with the other members of their class. Students do so with written, oral and video presentations.
- Science Addresses Questions About the Natural and Material World
- The two primary questions posed by the Diablo Highway lab activity are: How did this happen? and Who did it? In answering these questions, students properly learn and apply science.
“The point is to provide an instructional context that bridges tactics and strategies with practices and the nature of science, through understanding the role of systems, models, patterns, cause and effect, the analysis and interpretations of data, the importance of evidence with scientific arguments, and the construction of scientific explanations of the natural world.”
- Diablo Highway begins with what the NGSS calls a phenomenon and proceeds into a deepened engagement and context made possible by “Phenomenon-Based Learning.” As stated in the NGSS: “By centering science education on phenomena that students are motivated to explain, the focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens.” In Diablo Highway, the initiating phenomenon is death or, more specifically, a sudden or unnatural death – one that shortens the expected natural lifetime of an individual. This is a suitable phenomenon in the NGSS framework because the anchoring phenomenon is understandable prior to the investigation. Hazel and Nancy Frome did die in the West Texas desert, this is fact, but the students must further investigate to discover how, why and by whom. The students do so in an ordered, step-by-step process to determine how this phenomenon occurred. Anchored as it is in this real event, Diablo Highway helps move students away from what the NGSS calls “decontextualized knowledge that students are unable to apply” in other applications. Rather Diablo Highway helps students “build more usable and generative knowledge” - problem-solving techniques that can be applied to other in-depth investigations. The investigation and explanation of an unnatural death and the solving of the crime that caused it is certainly a compelling phenomena that, as it says in the NGSS guidelines, “students find interesting, relevant and consequential” to support their engagement. Because the case of Hazel and Nancy Frome is a real case from history involving actual people and an actual place - this makes it all the more compelling for the students. This becomes the anchoring phenomenon which is followed and closely supported by investigative phenomenon throughout the Diablo Highway lab activities. In these ways and others, Diablo Highway strongly encourages the learning and application of science because it is grounded in phenomenon.
- Diablo Highway also strongly supports the notion of “Storylines” as set forth in the NGSS standards.
“A storyline is a coherent sequence of lessons, in which each step is driven by students' questions that arise from their interactions with phenomena.”Diablo Highway is a narrative that involves real people with real histories, and it presents these in a narrative-based format to the student. Crime scenes themselves are a type of narrative. To determine the “story of the crime,” students use a sense of place, the crime scene, and then construct the narrative of the crime based on the evidence found at the scene. One could say that it is storytelling using space rather than time as its primary dimension of storytelling. Most narratives are told in time sequence - with a beginning, a middle and an end. In the case of Diablo Highway, time is fixed at a single point – Sunday, April 3rd, 1938 – and space is the primary means of telling the narrative. How is the narrative told? By using the scientific basis of phenomenon in order to reconstruct the events that took place and the people who may have been responsible for those events. So, Diablo Highway is not just a series of lessons, it’s an opportunity for the student’s own curiosity and ingenuity to 'build a case' as to who may have committed the crime, very much like an actual forensics investigator. In Diablo Highway, students are prompted to build their case based on their own investigation or that of their group in a coherent series of labs. Their determination will be based on sound science supported by accurate data as they work their way through the lessons and labs. It is the coherence of the student’s storyline that supports the NGSS standards, an evidence-based lab activity that arises from a student’s interaction with the phenomenon, not the instructor’s.
- The NGSS recognizes the connection between mathematics and science.
“Science is a quantitative discipline, so it is important for educators to ensure that students’ science learning coheres well with their learning in mathematics.”The three CCSSM (Common Core State Standards for Math) practice standards most directly relevant to science are:
- Reason abstractly and quantitatively - The entire Case History: Diablo Highway activity is an exercise in abstract reasoning, in the sense that the students are challenged to investigate a time from before they were born (1938), a place that few have seen (the West Texas desert), people they’ve never met (the victims and the suspects), and events they are challenged to interpret. Quantitative reason is applied particularly through the gathering of the evidence from the crime scene, its analysis in the lab activities, and the interpretation of the data generated through these functions.
- Use appropriate tools strategically - Conducting the labs, students use a variety of digital tools including digital microscopes, digital calipers and digital data recording devices. These tools are used strategically throughout the conduct of the various lab activities as they lead through the comprehensive investigation of the crime.
- The NGSS recognizes the connection between literacy and building knowledge in science “including understanding the nature of evidence used, an attention to precision and detail, and the capacity to make and assess intricate arguments, synthesize complex information, and follow detailed procedures and accounts of events and concepts.” In addressing this, the NGSS development team worked closely with the literacy team of the Common Core State standards “to identify key literacy connections to the specific content demands outlined in the NGSS.” In supporting the NGSS, Diablo Highway therefore also supports these CCSS standards in literacy. Diablo Highway Online Forensic Science Lab Activity lab provides primary written documents as an important basis for the understanding of the crime narrative upon which the science is based. These include source documents such as newspaper articles about the crime, maps and detailed written descriptions of the historical context for the event, the crime scene and the suspects. Furthermore, as a culminating project at the end of the activity, students are asked to write a short report summarizing their determinations. This report must include their determinations supported coherently by evidence and the data from their lab reports in an articulate demonstration of their mastery of these science concepts.