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Bringing the “CSI” into Mayfield’s “STEM”

When Mayfield administration chose to offer a new Forensics Science course in their STEM curriculum this year, they had to look no further than their own distinguished Dr. Laurie Kovalenko to teach. Dr. Kovalenko (or “Dr. K” to her students) went to Cornell for her undergraduate in Chemistry, received her PhD from the University of Colorado—Boulder in Chemical Physics (with research in quantum mechanics), and did her post-doc work at Stanford, analyzing the physical properties of meteorites using laser-induced desorption mass spectrometry. She worked in prestigious labs including JPL, and instructed at the university-level nationwide, before she started teaching students much earlier on their academic journeys. Dr. K has made a career of pursuing her curiosity, while applying her rigorous scientific principles to whatever new discipline she takes on. Dr. K was already teaching Mayfield’s Physics and Chemistry courses when she was approached about the inaugural Forensics Science course. She was eager to take on the challenge but admits, “I don’t even watch NCIS or CSI!” Dr. K laughs while she explains, “I am not into gore, but I do love working on a good problem!”
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There is no question there is a media appetite for some of the work done in forensic science, and many students had their first exposure to the field from that source. Jemimah Khan ’24 explains “I heard about forensics for the first time when I was around 10-13 watching an Indian crime show…after watching the show Criminal Minds, I fell more in love with the psychological aspect of forensics.” Abby Beegle ‘23 also explains, “I was first introduced to it through TV, “Back when I was in the fifth grade, my favorite tv show and favorite character was a Crime Scene Investigator,” adding, “Ever since then I saw CSI and Forensic examiners on TV and just was really fascinated with the topic.” Allison Erickson has a similar point of entry. “I love watching true crime documentaries and learning all about cases,” she says. “So I thought it would be fun to learn about the behind the scenes of it.”

In fact, the presentations in Dr. K’s class today might help demystify the media narrative of popular TV shows quite a bit. The twelve students in this course prepared individual slide-decks, each exploring a single profession inside the field of forensic science, and they take turns sharing their presentations to the entire class. The first student presentation was about a “DNA Expert,” the next a “Homicide Investigator,” then “Crime Scene Investigator,” “Firearms Examiner,” “Toxicologist,” “Forensic Psychiatrist” and “Medical Examiner.” The presentations bring the nuts and bolts to these specific professions, from salary, to hours, to location of that work—be it the field or the lab—and they also take into account the physical and mental strain some of these jobs entail.
Throughout the course, Dr. K goes through great pains to make sure her students understand that many of these media portrayals are riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentation. Dr. K also makes it clear early in the class that hard physical evidence can still be subject to bias, and that even the field of forensic science is on the learning curve of combating that bias—improving the ways of collecting, analyzing and interpreting their data.

The conversations in the classroom today are animated, and the students are deeply engaged in each other’s presentations. Dr. K also wants to follow up on a project she assigned to her students during their last class. “Did everyone bring in their t-shirts?” she asks. Everyone nods as they plunge their hands into their backpacks and produce sealed large Ziploc bags, with t-shirts of every color sealed tightly inside. She instructs them to drop the bags into an open drawer at the back of the room. 

Outside class hours, Dr. K explains these t-shirts will be part of an upcoming assignment, asking students to apply the skills they are learning in the course. Everyone was instructed to select a shirt (new or freshly laundered) to wear for a day, and to document what they did on that day and where they went. As a class, they will employ forensic tools to analyze these physical objects—or “evidence”—so to speak. They will look for traces of hair or fur, unusual fibers, trace amounts of grass/pollen, food or even blood stains, and use these tools to give glimpses into what the student had been doing that day, and whether or not it corresponds with their log. Dr. K says this exercise is deeply linked to her students’ understanding “Locard's Principle,” which holds that: “every contact leaves a trace” and “the perpetrator of a crime will bring something into the crime scene and leave with something from it, and that both can be used as forensic evidence.”

On the first day of this class, Dr. K asked students why they decided to take on this course. Roughly half of the students surveyed said they had some professional interest in the field. Abby Beegle talks about her career aspirations explicitly, “I really am interested in forensic science, and I have been considering going into forensics in college and pursuing a career in it.” Jemimah Khan says she hopes this class will give her, “more in-depth knowledge regarding forensics and want to gain a true perspective of whether this is the path I want to take on for my future.”At the moment Jemimah has been considering, “becoming a criminal profiler or therapist.”

Dr. K considers herself a life-long learner, and shares her passion and enthusiasm with her students. Though she is still new to the discipline of Forensics Science, she enjoys teaching the subject and learning alongside her students. And she sees this kind of challenge as par-for-the-course in the sciences in general. “When you go into science and you move from job to job, you actually do very different things because you learn that way.” Whether or not her students go on to pursue careers in Forensics Science, Dr. K believes the lessons they learn in her class will apply everywhere, explaining, “I love working with students, helping them learn how to learn.” To Dr. K, science is not “memorization” but “problem-solving.” And in her class, she imparts this to her students in any way she can: “I hope they’ll develop critical thinking skills, learn how to think like a scientist and learn how to persist.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.