Forensic Science Meets Technical Writing
In Your Classroom

 

T. R. Girill
STC Fellow
trg@llnl.gov

The Challenge

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:

  • NOTES.
    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, for example.
  • TALKS.
    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 Forensic Sciences (http://aafs.org/default.asp?section_id=resources&page_id=choosing_a_career) 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 impartial professionalism."
  • REPORTS.
    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 (CDC, 1996).

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:

  • Guidelines that concisely, overtly summarize good-description techniques for students mimic similar advice checklists used by FS/CSI professionals in the field.
  • Instructions are vital for learning and sharing reliable forensic procedures (quite like the steps for extracting DNA from cheek cells often used in biology classes).
  • Descriptions of crime scenes clearly parallel those for student science projects, on a grain size that ranges from one period to a full semester.
  • Technical 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 offered here. 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 generalize, and
  • 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 page. 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 themselves.
  • 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 chart 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.
  • Report Tips.
    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 apprenticeship. 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 frustration.

References Cited

Association of Arkansas Counties. (2004).
Arkansas County Coroner's Procedures Manual. Little Rock, AK: Association of Arkansas Counties. URL: http://arcounties.org/publications/pubs/2004CoronersManual.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1996).
Guidelines for death scene investigation of sudden, unexplained infant deaths. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 45(RR-10), 7-21. URL: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/rr/rr4510.pdf
Court TV. (2006).
Forensics in the classroom--the cafeteria caper. New York: Topics Education Group. URL: http://www.courttv.com/forensics_curriculum/unit4.pdf
Hart, Geoff. (2006).
The CSI effect: scientific education via television has its perils. The Exchange, (May) 13(2), 8-9. URL: http://www.stcsig.org/sc/newsletter/html/2006-2.htm#csi
Lyman, Michael D. (2005).
Criminal Investigation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Ody, Elizabeth. (2005).
Crime seen. Edutopia, (December) 1(9), 12. URL: http://www.edutopia.org/magazine/ed1article.php?id=art_1409&issue=dec_05
Peterson, H. D., et al. (2002).
Assessing the quality of medical documents. Journal of Forensic Science, 47(2), 293-298.