KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The scenes high school science teacher Kathy Mirakovits sets up for her students sometimes appear to be gory and are always enigmatic at initial encounter.
Often, there is a body. There may be blood splatter, possibly fingerprints. It is up to her students to detect and decipher the clues that will determine what happened and how.
Are there hair samples or other biological material to account for and test? What does the pattern or shape of blood splatter reveal about the direction and force of injury?
Questions pile up, and students are challenged to use chemistry, biology, math, physics to discover the answers.
Before television shows such as “CSI” became popular, Mirakovits began teaching forensic science to her high school students to hook their interest and keep them engaged in rigorous, inquiry-based science education.
“They love doing the science when they see there’s a purpose behind it,” says the educator of more than three decades and graduate of WMU’s master’s degree program in science education. She teaches at Portage Northern High School, about five miles south of WMU.
“I’m not trying to get students to become forensic scientists. That’s not my goal. My goal is to show them that all this science that they’ve learned K-10, they’re now going to put into practice. It gets the kids to think analytically, to problem solve and work as a team. Those are skills they can use in any job they go on to do.”
Mirakovits is an award-winning educator and teacher leader, and she has become expert in forensic science instruction.
During summers, she travels the United States training other school teachers how to develop forensic science coursework. She has co-authored texts on the subject and created other curricular material, both sold nationally, and she is certified in bloodstain analysis.
Mirakovits became interested in teaching the biology, chemistry and physics of crime scene investigation back in the mid 1990s, after serving as a juror on a criminal court case.
Jury duty took the teacher away from her classroom for a few weeks and when she returned, her ninth graders were curious about her experience in court. In a teacherly move, she turned what her pupils were curious about into a lesson plan and asked a local sheriff’s deputy to help set up a realistic crime scene off campus.
“We did fingerprinting. We did blood splatter analysis, which is physics. We did drug testing, which is chemistry. They loved it. I Ioved it. And I got hooked,” she says.
Yet there was little or no curriculum in forensic science for high school students and no teacher education in a discipline that so well integrates much of what Mirakovits and other comprehensive science instructors are trained to teach.
But a teacher is fundamentally a learner, and she went about learning all she could about criminalistics.
She has secured teaching grants to pay for training, visited crime labs, studied alongside police officers and once picked up techniques from investigators in the FBI’s scientific research unit in Quantico, Virginia.
“An amazing place,” she says.
And when she couldn’t find a just-right formulation of fake blood, she partnered with a police officer to create a formulation that is now sold in mock crime scene kits.
The more she has learned, the more sophisticated her courses in criminalistics have become.
She even created and maintains a “body farm” of pig fetuses that have died of natural causes. The farm allows her students to study insect progression, specifically the life cycle of the blowfly, to determine time of death, knowledge that is often critical in crime investigation and requires the application of biology, chemistry and climatology.
Mirakovits’ forensic science courses have been popular with students.
But they’re not easy.
Students sometimes grumble about processing evidence, not because they are put off by the macabre nature of even a fake crime scene, but because of the workload.
“I make them prove all their evidence, and there’s a lot of paperwork involved, which any police officer will tell you. … But they love the crime scenes. They love the hunt. They love the mystery,” she says.
Mike Huber, director of curriculum and professional development at Portage Public Schools, says Mirakovits is a beloved teacher who has high expectations for students.
“She puts the bar at max level, but helps the kids go with her to that high level of learning,” he says.
“There’s a real art and skill to leaving the bar high and comfortably walking with students to get to that spot. Kathy is very adept at that.”