Real Life Forensics vs. Media Hype

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SWBAT: Compare real life forensic work to what is seen in the media. Explain the CSI effect and its relevance to forensics investigations.

Big Idea

Many believe that forensic scientists work as we see them in TV shows, such as "Law & Order" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation", but how realistic are these portrayals?


15 minutes

I have the students watch excerpts from several Crime Scene shows that I have compiled.  As they watch, I ask them to write down anything that represents the job of a forensics investigator. This could include their duties, dress, setting, etc.


I remind the students what we discussed in the prior lesson and ask them to recall the goal of any crime scene investigation.  (To answer some or all of the following questions:

  • Who is the victim?
  • Who is the perpetrator?
  • What happened?
  • How and why was the crime committed?
  • When and where did the crime take place?
  • What is the evidence?)


Based on what we saw in the videos, I ask students to consider how easy they think an investigator's job might be and why. After allowing them a few minutes of think time, I call on random students to share their thoughts in response to my question, as well as the generalizations they made while watching the video clips.  I copy their ideas on the board, placing tallies next to the ideas that were repeated.


30 minutes

I ask students to consider, then Turn and Talk, about what might be some of the best methods of conducting investigations and finding evidence. After accepting a few responses, I explain that if officers rush to the scene to collect the murder weapon, it’s possible that they may destroy other evidence, such as footprints.While I don't get too into detail about investigations are conducted, I want the students to realize that investigators must be very careful and consider a wide variety of factors that may be affected if they attempt to collect evidence or make conclusions too quickly.

I also explain to students that crime scene investigators often work in teams and follow very detailed and established procedures, which we will learn more about in this unit. But for today, we will learn a little more about what the real life of a forensics investigator entails and how it is both similar and different from what we see on TV.

In order to start collecting information about this topic, I have students access the Forensic Science page on the Shmoop website. This site includes 14 pages (not including the bell curve*) of information that students can use to read and learn about the life and career of a forensics scientist. I assign two pages form the site to each students, being careful to provide each student with one longer and one shorter page, or to assign the shorter pages to struggling or reluctant readers. While students read through the information, they will fill in the Forensics Venn Diagram, comparing the forensic scientists they saw in the videos with the information presented on the site.

Next, I play the How Accurate is Forensic Science on TV video to help reinforce the information they read online. They may also add information from the video to their diagram.

After reading through the assigned webpages and watching the video clip, I allow students to select one of the attached articles to read on their own. They add this information to the Venn diagram to help them compare and contrast real vs. dramatized forensics work.

* I chose not to have my students access the bell curve page as they do not yet have enough background knowledge to read and analyze it accurately.


10 minutes

After allowing students time to work conduct the reading and work on their Venn diagrams, I project a blank copy of the Venn on the board and call up students, 2 at a time, to add one piece of information onto the diagram that has not already been written. I choose students purposefully, selecting lower performing students in the beginning, before many answers have already been written. This allows them to be successful and provides a challenge for my higher achieving students, which they often need and enjoy. I allow students to refer back to the reading to find additional information as needed. We discuss each piece of information as it is added, and I ask clarifying / probing questions - in differing levels of complexity -  as needed, such as:

  • What did you mean by...?
  • Why do you think this is the case?
  • Why do you think that quality is shared by both?
  • What makes that different from the other category?
  • Even though you said... was different, can you come up with a situation in which they may share that quality?
  • Why do you think that would be placed in only one category and not both?
  • You said that both TV and real scientists..., can you think of a time when that would not be the case?


5 minutes

Now that students have a solid grasp of the differences between media and real life forensics, I ask students to consider how an inaccurate portrayal of forensics might have an effect on society. Some may come up with a surface-level responses, such as "People will want the job because it looks glamorous, when it's really not."  However, many will not yet be able to determine the relationship. In order to help them understand the effect of the glamorization of forensics in the media, I have them watch the Beyond the CSI Effect: Forensics clip:

Rather than having a discussion just yet, I allow students to select another article to read for homework. (I've included a number of articles here.) In order to provide focus, I ask the students to highlight the three biggest effects of media hype in the field of forensics while they read, and to bring both their Venn diagram and their highlighted article back the following day.


5 minutes

Assessment Option #1:

Now that students have been exposed to the real day-to-day life and work of a forensic scientist, I refer back to the video clips we watched earlier in the day. We watch them again, but this time, purposefully. Students must make an e-copy of (or print) the Real Forensics vs. Media Hype file to identify and explain the accuracies and inaccuracies of each clip. This activity provides me with a thorough understanding of the students' ability to discern actual work in the field of forensics as opposed to what is portrayed in the media.



Assessment Option #2:

When students return the following day, they will get a chance to demonstrate their knowledge in a more creative way that isn't typical for a science class. I explain to students that they are tasked with creating a political cartoon that demonstrates the CSI effect and how the media "hype" surrounding forensics has created a problem for society. I pass out the Political Cartoon Guidelines, as well as colored pencils to each table. We read through the directions and examples. For the remainder of class, students create and refine their cartoon, followed by sharing with the class or table groups. A rubric has been provided to evaluate student work.


Once I know I have helped my students to break down the stereotypes and understand the field of forensics, the real investigation work can begin! See the next lessons in this unit for more forensics activities.