T. R. Girill
Recent television programs have made forensic science (FS) generally
and crime scene investigation (CSI) in particular into model
careers and fantasy career choices for many students (Hart, 2006).
In response, some high schools now use an FS/CSI theme to frame and
motivate their freshman (or even advanced) general science or
biology courses (for example, see Ody, 2005).
While this boosts interest and enrollment, many students still struggle
in science because of weak nonfiction reading and writing skills.
Fortunately, we can also harness FS/CSI to improve basic literacy.
Good communication, after all, is vital in authentic FS/CSI practice.
Pointing out why and how (see below) can both encourage and
educate underperforming students.
This essay explains how carefully scaffolded text-design learning
aids and exercises (examples linked below) with an FS/CSI flavor
can build the technical-writing, note-taking, and presentation
skills that are highly relevant to success with science in your
classroom and far beyond.
Writing's Real Role
In real life, effective nonfiction communication is crucial for
adequate FS/CSI practice. Police officers and medical investigators
alike repeatedly face the challenge of writing (and speaking)
well for their colleagues, their clients, and even for themselves:
CSI textbooks routinely advise police trainees about the importance
of developing a thorough and reliable system for recording their own
field notes (e.g., Lyman, 2005, pp. 33-40).
Organized, meaningful notes may be the only way to
preserve key crime-scene observations
as well as comments gathered from victims, witnesses, and suspects.
Likewise, physicians or nurses assessing torture or abuse
allegations, especially as international monitors in civil (or other)
wars, must generate rich and revealing notes.
Whole professional articles (e.g., Peterson, 2002)
coach medical staff on how best to describe their own clinical
findings on the history, distribution, shape, and color of lesions,
Besides giving informal verbal explanations to colleagues, supervisors,
and attorneys, FS/CSI professionals may qualify as expert witnesses
in judicial proceedings. The web site of the American Academy of
points out that "the forensic scientist often spends long hours
testifying clearly and concisely...concerning scientific information
and what it means. Throughout he must maintain a posture of
Their reports are often the most far-reaching, enduring way in which
investigators influence other parts of the elaborate FS/CSI system.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (a big consumer of other
people's forensic reports) even contributed the reports chapter
included in the official procedures manual for Arkansas county
coroners. This chapter explains that "no investigation regardless
of how competently executed is complete unless accurately reported...your
case is never better than your report"
(Association of Arkansas Counties, 2004, p. 40).
Reports also capture and share crucial information in noncriminal
situations. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
for instance, promote the use of a standard, 6-page, heavily scaffolded
report form for all investigators of "sudden unexplained infant death"
(SUID). Only exceptionally careful, consistent, and revealing reports
enable reliable later epidemiological studies of possible SUID causes
The Classroom Connection
Because real-life crime scene investigation (and forensic science in
general) demand sound technical communication, injecting technical
writing activities into FS/CSI-themed science classes enriches those
classes seamlessly. All of the text-design techniques shared elsewhere
on this web site already blend well with an FS/CSI approach:
that concisely, overtly summarize good-description techniques
mimic similar advice checklists used by FS/CSI professionals in
are vital for learning and sharing reliable forensic procedures
(quite like the steps for extracting DNA from cheek cells often used
in biology classes).
of crime scenes clearly parallel those for student science projects,
on a grain size that ranges from one period to a full semester.
talks to classmates, though less constrained, bear much the same
burden (of actively helping one's audience appreciate one's claims
and activities) as does expert forensic testimony.
Even commercial CSI vendors recognize these educational possibilities
in a crude way. Court TV, for instance, caps their middle-school
crime-scene package with an "investigative report" template
(Court TV, 2006, p. 62)
for student use (logo included, but sadly it is otherwise a blank page).
Latent skill deficits remain a challenge, however.
Even students convinced that writing forms an authentic part of FS/CSI
may still be unable to do it, or even try it.
Filling that blank report template is a daunting, perhaps hopeless,
task for students who lack the underlying text-drafting skills to
approach the problem incrementally.
The Enhanced Classroom Connection
In response, we can go one step beyond the general
cognitive-apprenticeship approach to technical writing
We can add overt FS/CSI cues, prompts, and terms to the
skill-building framework itself. Thus even the scaffolding can
connect students with crime scene investigation without weakening
its learning value. In fact, using explicitly FS/CSI-themed
teaching aids can:
- more strongly motivate reluctant (or unimaginative) students
to try specific writing techniques,
- offer unusual (but legitimate) examples that students can gradually
- directly, even vividly, connect seemingly artificial school
activities (like taking notes) to job-critical skills for
FS/CSI careers (and for many others as well, of course).
For students who need this extra support, posted here are specialized
versions of the broadly applicable technical-writing aids already shared
elsewhere on this site. No tips or techniques have been sacrificed;
only the examples and framing prompts have been changed to remind
students about the writing-related aspects of FS/CSI.
This kit of modified skill-builders includes:
- Note-taking Tips.
This posting applies the
Guidelines for Good Descriptions
(left column) to the specific descriptive task of taking notes for
oneself (middle column), just as does our standard note-taking
It illustrates the same techniques; this is not a junior
version with inferior advice.
However, all the embedded examples and cases (right column) derive
from FS/CSI situations and terms. This version thus clearly links
the benefits (and challenges) of authentic FS/CSI note taking to the
scaffolded practice that this framework enables students to try
Technical Talk Tips.
When giving talks to their classmates your students certainly do not
face the artificial rules of judicial expert testimony.
But like the FS/CSI professional in court, students must still meet
their audience's need for structure, review, understanding, and
effective delivery (left column).
This version of our standard talk-tips
alters (only) the headings on the second and third columns so that
students can more easily see their classroom presentations
as preparation for science-based talks in jobs (such as FS/CSI jobs)
outside of school.
Repeatedly assigning unstructured project reports does nothing to
incrementally build the writing skills of students who do not
already know how to construct a useful project report.
For progress, they need something more like a report-writing
So this tip sheet blends realistic FS/CSI training headings and topics
with the broad framework used for any science journal article.
The result is a focused, scaffolded project-report template whose
prompts externalize how to start, build, and refine an effective report.
Combine this with an annotated sample report from a previous year
and you enable skill building instead of just causing writer
- Association of Arkansas Counties. (2004).
- Arkansas County Coroner's Procedures Manual.
Little Rock, AK: Association of Arkansas Counties.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1996).
- Guidelines for death scene investigation of sudden, unexplained
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 45(RR-10), 7-21.
- Court TV. (2006).
- Forensics in the classroom--the cafeteria caper.
New York: Topics Education Group.
- Hart, Geoff. (2006).
- The CSI effect: scientific education via television has its perils.
The Exchange, (May) 13(2), 8-9.
- Lyman, Michael D. (2005).
- Criminal Investigation. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Ody, Elizabeth. (2005).
- Crime seen.
Edutopia, (December) 1(9), 12.
- Peterson, H. D., et al. (2002).
- Assessing the quality of medical documents.
Journal of Forensic Science, 47(2), 293-298.