Sure, it was just a car. But somebody had loved that car before it rolled away, a thief’s foot on the gas and hands on the wheel.
Now, it was up to Enochs High forensic scientists to unravel the “Mystery of the Stolen Mustang,” and a visitor from London was watching.
“There’s so much that goes into investigating different crimes,” said Jessica Fernandez, a senior in the Enochs Forensics/Biotechnology Academy. Fernandez is planning on a career in animation and digital arts, but said she likes working out the cryptic science dilemmas posed by teacher Dave Menshew.
“I like the process of solving things,” she said.
To help in her quest, the class uses a Hitachi TM3030 scanning electron microscope on loan from the company. Soil samples and strands of hair give up a lot of clues when viewed at 3,000 to 4,000 times their actual size.
The microscope can capture images at 30,000 magnification, an industrial heft the Enochs class does not need for this investigation. But the fact that they have learned to use such a piece of equipment drew the interest of James Perkins, a science teacher in England traveling on a Winston Churchill Fellowship.
His mission is to find what works for science research in a high school setting, in particular the use of high-end tools in science classes. Perkins teaches at a private school that has a similar microscope. His school also provides in-depth science instruction to visiting public school classes.
Kids don’t want to be patronized. They want to do the real thing.
James Perkins, science teacher
He wanted to see how Enochs used the tool in its lessons, Perkins said, “because it’s such a rare thing to do.” There are only a handful of schools in the world he has found that provide access to professional-level scientific tools. That matters, he said, to developing the next generation of scientists.
“There’s a lot of talking about 21st-century skills that are lacking these days,” he said – key among them: the ability to fail.
“If you’re doing extended investigations work … simply by using high-end scientific tools, you’re going to have some not work out. You’re not doing these pared-down experiments made for kids,” Perkins said.
“Kids don’t want to be patronized. They want to do the real thing,” he said. “If you allow teachers to run a class and use their expertise, then you’ve got opportunity, and the students learn. It gives them a chance to really grow.”
For student Samantha Van Alen, the quest is the fun part.
“I’ve always been interested in crime shows. Knowing how they do it and being able to have hands-on – it’s very interesting to me,” said Van Alen, who plans on a career as a physical therapist.
That week’s mystery would call upon the seniors to use a variety of scientific methods and tools, simple computer searches on Google Earth and Mapquest, as well as the sophisticated microscope.
“I like to learn new techniques to analyze different stuff, break down those things in different ways,” said Gerardo Cisneros, ticking off blood traces, trail marks and the distance a bullet traveled to its destination.
Maybe I’ll find a new vaccine, new drugs to fight disease. I want to help make a difference.
Gerardo Cisneros, Enochs High student
Cisneros said the classes have helped him in targeting a future in medical research.
“Maybe I’ll find a new vaccine, new drugs to fight disease. I want to help make a difference,” he said.
Menshew’s classes all use the hands-on, real-life scenarios present in the Common Core-aligned science framework adopted Nov. 3 by California, a framework Menshew helped develop.
“Science education is undergoing a renaissance that began with the adoption of California’s Next Generation Science Standards in 2013 and advances today with a science framework that will guide teaching,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in announcing the adoption.
California was the first state in the nation to adopt a framework, drafting one that ties science studies to Common Core math and English standards.
“There’s so much in them. It’s overwhelming for new teachers,” Menshew said, predicting the learning curve for teachers will be steep, and kids with only “factoid-based” lessons in early grades will struggle.
“It will be great 10 years from now,” he said with a wry smile.
In England, there are no similar efforts to have cross-subject match-ups, or even a common set of science standards, Perkins said, but the goal of making more realistic and challenging lessons is the same.
“I’ve always found,” Perkins said, “if you’ve got experience in teaching staff, if you can be flexible in timing and finances, and give them a bit of space, let them get on with it – I think that’s the same the world over.”