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A 1998 Subaru wagon sits unoccupied in a parking lot. A bullet hole was found under the hood near an unidentified drop of blood on the water reservoir. A spent bullet was recovered from the floor in the back. Blood was found pooled in the trunk, suggesting someone — or something — was kept there and dragged out.

For fledgling forensic investigators at Pioneer Valley High School, the Subaru crime scene is simply their latest piece of classwork. As part of the school's Medical Health Career Technical Education (CTE) pathway, teachers Michelle Allen and Nick Enns transform their classroom into a "crime lab" for students pursuing the forensics concentration. The capstone class in the pathway, students are required to complete classes in anatomy and physiology, chemistry and biology before enrolling in the course.

On Thursday, students armed with micropipettes and calipers simulated blood drops in Enns' classroom. Their goal: to determine from what height blood must fall to create a drop equal to the size of the one found on the Subaru.

"Blood falls in a very predictable way," Enns said. "We're trying to re-create the size of that blood drop, then, based on height, to determine how far that blood fell."

The forensics pathway does not confer a certificate or specialized training status upon graduating students, Enns said, pointing to legal concerns regarding a minor's ability to participate in the forensic process. Regardless of certificate or training, Enns touts the class as an immersive and engaging way to teach science, statistics and higher-order logic and thinking.

"Each chapter in our textbook is a whole [college] class, if you were going to be a criminology major," Enns said. "We read and analyze parts of the case, learn how to lift fingerprints, learn about blood, DNA, tissues, ballistics and end at the courtroom."

Senior Alondra Castañeda said that while she does not intend to pursue a career in forensic science, she has enjoyed the rigor and challenges the class has offered.

"It was so difficult to put yourself into the state of investigation," she said, adding that the dramatization of crime scenes in movies and on television shows made it hard to concentrate while on scene. "I felt like I was messing everything up. There are a lot of details you need to take into consideration when you investigate. I never thought the size of a blood drop would matter."

Like Castañeda, senior Vivian Sanchez does not plan to pursue forensic science but said it has taught her how to work with the equipment.

"We get to use professional scientific equipment that we wouldn't normally get to use in other classes," she said. "I think it's really cool."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.