Forensic Inspiration
Written by Dave Menshew   


BEGINNING IN 2006 with 156 students, James C. Enochs High School in Modesto, Calif. opened the nation’s only four-year forensic biotechnology program at the high-school level. Spring-boarding off existing student interest in television shows such as CSI, Bones, Cold Case Files, and The First 48, this nationally recognized program teaches students laboratory skills that are transferrable to future collegiate and occupational applications. At the same time, the program has produced outstanding student achievement. Currently there are more than 360 students in the program who achieve higher standardized test scores in multiple subjects compared to their same-school, district, and state peers.

Zombies add engagement

At California State University, Stanislaus, program students dressed as zombies and created post-apocalyptic scenes to demonstrate the application of blood spatter analysis, crime scene analysis, and ballistics.


The program has also used popular interest in zombies as a way to study blood spatter, disease transmission, crime scene analysis, and ballistics. In the spring of 2014, program students were invited to California State University, Stanislaus to share their forensic activities at a public science-outreach event. Hundreds of visitors enjoyed three university classrooms set up as post-apocalyptic scenes. The zombies were prepared by professional makeup artists and engaged learners of all ages in core forensics and biotechnology concepts.

High technology, strong academics

Since 2012, the Hitachi Corporation has partnered with the Enochs High School Forensic Biotechnology Program to use scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to enhance the quality of crime scene scenarios. For example, students using the TM3000 TableTop SEM develop realistic story lines and then create electron micrographs that are subsequently used in class activities. Listing experience with this device has been a beneficial addition to students’ college applications.

Using the Forensic Science for High Schools text by Barbara Deslich and John Funkhouser (Kendall/Hunt, 2006), students enjoy a variety of activities including evidence types, fingerprinting, hair and fibers, and blood typing. During labs, students keep legal laboratory notebooks with university-level write-ups. In some cases, these books have been honored as proof of skills at the university level.

Students add to their skills with DNA amplification and gel electrophoresis lab activities. As of spring 2014, the program has a highly equipped educational polymerase chain reaction lab with each of its ten lab stations having mini thermal cyclers linked to new, high-quality HP laptops for real-time experiment display.

Since 2010, the program has contracted forensic teacher Mark Okuda, co-author of A Hands-On Introduction to Forensic Science: Cracking the Case (CRC Press, 2014), to develop innovative lessons on such topics as the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. Students are highly engaged through interesting scenarios, whole-class activities, and demonstrations. Okuda’s labs were field tested with Enochs High program students.

Students have taken what they have learned about forensics to partnerships structured from kindergarten to the university level. For example, during the 2013-14 school year, students in the program used several of the core forensic concepts to visit with elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, as well as a local university campus, to teach their peers.

Partnerships are key

Using numerous partnerships with law enforcement, education, and industry, the program offers a wide variety of learning opportunities for its student population. For example, using an engagement technique called “evidence bags,” students work in teams to explain a set of items that represent either a victim or perpetrator involved in a crime. It is the students’ task to tell what the items tell them about the person in question, how this relates to the crime described, and how they would defend their findings in a court of law.

Students often pursue their forensic learning outside of the classroom; a representative group participated in simulated active-shooter training for a local city police force assisting with crime scene scenarios and officer training in 2013.

The program has been fortunate to have the support of local agencies and organizations. For example, the biotechnology curriculum development has been supported by University of California, Davis; San Jose State University; University of the Pacific; and Merced College. Forensic teacher training has been provided by the American Association of Forensic Scientists at the U.S. Department of Justice facilities in San Jose and Sacramento, Calif. The Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office, American River College, City of Modesto and Stanislaus County Sheriff have all provided learning support for the program. These experiences have informed instruction and have helped to make the forensic lessons authentic.


The question then arises, what effect has this approach had on student achievement? The funding is based on a California Partnership Academy model. This requires that 51% of the students be considered “at risk” according to state criteria such as low grades, attendance, or motivation. It also requires that students in the program participate in a small learning community (SLC) which has been shown to enhance student achievement. This also means that the students attend as a group in at least three classes.

According to published California State Testing and Reporting (STAR) scores, 78% of the students in the Enochs High School Forensic Biotechnology Program achieved “Advanced” or “Proficient” in 2011-2013, versus their peers who achieved “Advanced” or “Proficient” 59% of the time, and state figures where only 47% achieved the same level (Figure 1).

Figure 1 — California State Testing and Reporting scores show that students participating in the biotechnology program test well above their peers.

Discussion of Data

High-stakes standardized state testing has shown significant results. The use of forensics to engage students has a demonstrated impact on learners. Students in the program outperform their peers at the site, district, and state levels in three core academic subjects. These learners contribute to a school that has had the highest academic performance index (API) in the California region from Sacramento to Fresno for the past three years. Approximately 69% of the juniors at Enochs High School take science classes in a state that requires none of them to do so. In 2014, the school was awarded a Silver ranking among America’s schools by U.S. News and World Report. When polled both formally and informally, students report high degrees of satisfaction with their time in the program, the ability to do investigations far beyond the scope of the textbook, and the support they receive from staff.

An Enochs High School student prepares a sample for analysis under the program’s scanning electron microscope.

Exceptional Points of Light

Since its inception, the Forensic Biotechnology Program at Enochs High School has attracted outstanding students and has also been an incubator that encourages others to rise to their potential. Providing numerous innovative learning experiences both in and out of the classroom has led to some interesting experiences and student performance.

For example, in 2010, two of the program’s graduates were accepted to UC Davis. Both were asked to join graduate research teams in their freshman year. The first, Chris Fiscus, has forgone the traditional summer-job pathway of fast food and instead works for a local agriculture biotechnology company. The other, Alexa Adams, went on to become a Google Glass beta tester and was included by Forbes Magazine Women 2.0 among young Women to Watch for 2013. She plans to do her Ph.D. at UC Davis and will pursue a designated emphasis in biotechnology.

Adams illustrates a pattern of young women stepping up to achieve and learn science. Throughout the program’s eight years, leadership has been dominated by young women. Recently, all of the presenters for the California Department of Education event at the State Fair were women, as are all of the leaders in the Forensic Biotech campus club. Of the current graduating class, 41 of 58 are female.

In 2014, two students graduated the program who had completed a record eight years of science coursework. This is significant in that only two years are required for graduation in California. Of these, one was a four-year competitive athlete; the other earned his Eagle Scout rank while in the forensic biotechnology program.

In that same graduating class, there were 12 students completing seven years of science, and 19 completing six years. One hundred percent of the students who began their fourth year of the program graduated.

About the Author

Dave Menshew came to teaching 23 years ago after a successful career in private business where he was present of a retail firm with sales in excess of $7.5 million per year. He was challenged by a guard at a local juvenile justice facility to do volunteer work to change the path of the offenders into jobs and careers. Menshew found purpose in this work and sold his multi-outlet corporation to enter teaching. Since then, he has achieved an M.A.Ed., and a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. He co-developed the ENochs High School Forensic Biotechnology program. He has interned at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs, Gallo Wines Enology Labs, and the Stanislaus County Coroner's Office. He is an adjunct professor and a doctoral candidate at Brandman Univeristy.

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