Teen sleuths learn forensic, science skills
BY DEBBIE PAGE
At Allison Woods Outdoor Learning Center this week, local children experienced lessons in natural and forensic sciences, including the county’s agricultural heritage, plants and seeds, aquaculture, geology and the solar system.
In addition, the campers enjoyed a visit from three Iredell County Sheriff Office K-9 officers.
Sixteen-year-old Payge Baker was a both participant and peer helper at the camp this week. “I really like being with kids and helping them. I love kids!”
Baker, a rising sophomore at West Iredell High School, plans to be a K-9 officer in the future and also hopes to incorporate her love of science in her career.
Jack Blackler, 11, a student at West Middle School, was excited to learn about DNA this week. “I’m really interested in science,” he said, as he prepared a wet slide of a hair to perform a medulla pattern analysis.
Thursday morning’s session began with a K-9 demonstration with Lieutenant Gary Simpson and his black labrador K-9 Officer Abby, Deputy Mike Hicks with his German Shepherd K-9 Officer Geri, and Sergeant Derrick Stutts with his bloodhound K-9 Officer Sadie.
Simpson began the session explaining that the sheriff’s office has 12 K-9 officers who work with their human handlers to sniff for narcotics, suspects, or even explosives. Some are trackers who look for someone who may be lost or eluding arrest.
After the K-9s work their 12-hour shift, they become pets at their handlers’ homes. They sleep in kennels and get no human food to avoid weight gain or sniffing distractions while working. Most are toy reward oriented, working to get their toys rather than treats. The toys are “imprinted” with the smells they are trained to find, which associates their job with something they enjoy.
Simpson’s dog Abby, much more petite than most labrador retrievers, comes from a type of lab especially bred to be small in Argentina, where they are used in bird hunting.
The dogs are trained to do their jobs, followed by 6-8 weeks of training with their handler, added Simpson. The training for both continues on a regular basis throughout the dogs’ careers. Most dogs serve in their law enforcement careers for 10 to 12 years before retiring.
Deputy Hicks explained that K-9 Geri, a tracker and narcotics dog, was from Germany and understands commands issued in that language. He looks for crushed vegetation when tracking in the woods, along with his keen sense of scent.
Geri’s sense of smell is so acute that when people might smell soup cooking, Geri can smell each unique ingredient in the soup. He and other trackers follow the cloud of shedding cells that follow people around, with Hicks reminding the kids of the Pigpen character in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
Hicks also explained that Geri exhibits an active alert when finding what he is looking for, pawing at it energetically, but Abby gives a passive alert, quietly sticking her paw and nose on the spot to which she wants to alert Simpson.
Sergeant Stutts said that the K-9s handlers effusively praise the dogs when they find the targeted item or person. “We try to make the job fun for them.” He explained that his active K-9 bloodhound Sadie was highly affectionate but not obedience and off-leash trained like Abby.
Sadie’s characteristics help her be an excellent tracker, according to Stutts. “Her slobber and wrinkles help her catch the scent that her long ears, which act like fan blades, stir up on the ground.”
Stutts recently had identical twins help train Sadie. The boys went through the woods to a baseball field and then split up across the dirt area, each heading to a separate dugout to hide. Sadie, after smelling a sock from one of the boys, distinguished between the twins and went straight to the correct boy.
The K-9s then individually performed for the kids, quickly finding the narcotics Simpson hid under a wooden platform. The campers lavished hugs on the gentle Abby and lined up to greet the rambunctious Sadie after their demonstrations.
SOLVING A MYSTERY
Campers next began their forensic science exploration by trying to solve the unsolved real-life murder of Henry Ward, the founder of Ward’s Natural Science. The participants’ two-day “investigation” was loosely based on the crime in which Ward was run down by an unidentified driver in Buffalo, New York, in 1906.
Extension Agent Kay Bridges, head of 4-H Youth Development for the Iredell County Cooperative Extension Center, led the group through the facts of the crime and the process of hair analysis, assisted by Allison Woods Learning Center Director Selena Goodin, Director of Education Paige Jackson, Program Director T.J. Melvin, and NIHS student volunteer Olivia Cales.
Over the two-day unit, the campers learned about and perform blood spatter analysis, including blunt force, medium velocity and high velocity spatter. They also performed fingerprinting, examined impressions, did blood-typing, and conducted DNA analysis.
“At the end of the investigation, they will tie all these clues together, to determine which of the four suspects they think the guilty party is, who killed Henry Ward, based on the evidence they gathered,” said Bridges.
“It’s teaching them STEM areas,” said Bridges. “They are using the scientific method to proceed through it. They come up with hypotheses and then must follow through to see if their hypotheses are proven or not. They learn to use microscopes, forceps, calipers, and other different types of scientific equipment.”
“They also have to use a lot of math. They have to measure and use these and mathematical analyses. It covers a lot of STEM areas,” added Bridges. The campers also journal all week about what they experienced all week to help them reflect on their learning.
Bridges thanked the Allison Woods staff for the strong alliance that the organization has with 4-H program, which has a group that meets at the learning center each month.