Teaching forensic DNA analysis to 4th graders

….was incredibly rewarding.

I’m re-printing a post of mine from my other blog:

My friend R’s class spent the last couple of weeks before Christmas break talking about forensics. My forensic DNA talk was going to wrap up the unit.

Now, having been a forensic DNA expert for 5 years of my life, I have had to give testimony in court (about 25 times now) for cases I worked on. I really disliked courtroom testimony since it was the defense team’s job to discredit my work.

I’ve given tours of our laboratory to visitors and explained what I knew about each area (and what I didn’t know, I deferred to those who did).

I even guest-lectured for some biology students at a private university. That was really, really nerve-wracking because unlike anyone else I ever spoke to, they knew the science behind the technology and would recognize it if I blundered.

But…all my past talks did not bring me quite as much satisfaction and utter joy that yesterday’s presentation did.

I spent the weekend preparing my transparencies (the school is in the middle of nowhere, and they are very low tech over there), some images I got from a former colleague at the crime lab I worked with, some awesome images I gleaned from the internet. I finally finished all the transparencies I wanted late Sunday night.

But it wasn’t until Monday morning at 6:30, that I decided the presentation needed something more. I decided it would be much more fun if I could bring props to help me explain some of the concepts. So, I started digging around the girls’ science kits and my cupboards and came up with some basic materials.

In the picture below, you can see some of my props.  I filled a large plastic test tube with water and red food coloring for a vial of blood, a squeeze bulb pipet, a cotton swab (for collecting cheek cells), a piece of filter paper with red ink spot on it, and our handy-dandy pasta and pipe-cleaner model of a piece of DNA.

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I also went into my kids felt foods, and found a red “ketchup splotch” I made out of red felt.  Perfect for a blood stain.   I also grabbed a pair of kid scissors too.

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On the drive over to the school, I started visualizing how I wanted the talk to go, and it came to me that I was going to say we leave traces of DNA whereever we go.   I decided I was going to fake a sneeze into a kleenex and hand it to the teacher (my friend R) and say, “could you hold this for me please?” and tell the kids, “that’s got my DNA all over it now”, and also I needed to chew a piece of gum for a while, and hand that over to the teacher as well and tell the kids, “that’s got my DNA all over it too”.  At some point, I was going to yank out a piece of my hair, and explain that DNA can be found at the root where it was stuck in the skin of my head.   I left early enough so I had time to stop at a gas station for a much needed pack of gum and some water.

I also came up with a “kid-friendly” crime that they could understand but not disturb them (they were, after all, only about 10 years old). I wasn’t about to talk about the violent crimes my work was used for. And it kind of evolved on the spot (which is kind of surprising because before yesterday, I wasn’t all that great at impromptu acting).   I was going to pretend that their teacher got into a fight with someone who looked like me (but wasn’t me), and that during the fight, the suspect got wounded and bled on his shirt and that hairs were yanked and transferred to his shirt during the scuffle for two types of evidence.  But since he wasn’t sure who it was who he was fighting with, and we rounded up a few suspects based on his description, we needed DNA evidence to be sure who it was. It was all coming together nicely.

It turned out to go exactly as I envisioned it.  And it wasn’t just me doing all the talking.  I had time for the kids to ask questions as I went through my transparencies.

As I started my talk, I had R sit close by because he was an integral part of it.   I started explaining what DNA was, where it came from, what it looked like (I had a transparency and the pasta model to pass around) how much of it was the same between people (giving us the characteristics that make us human) and how some of it was very different among people (making them look different from the friend sitting right next to them).  I even passed around a picture of my three girls to show them how different they looked from each other (one red-head with blue eyes, one brunette with brown eyes , and one blonde with brown eyes) even though they came from the same parents (I’m brown haired and brown-eyed, my husband is blond and blue-eyed). I asked them if they knew of any twins or triplets that looked exactly the same and told them that they looked exactly the same because their DNA was identical.

Here are the transparencies I used to explain where DNA came from and what chromosomes and DNA strands look like.

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During this part of the talk, I said, “excuse me, I have to sneeze”, and I dramatically grabbed a tissue from a nearby box and sneezed, then balled it up and handed it to R.    R played along well and wrinkled his nose when I said, “that’s got my DNA all over it”.

I was chewing my gum while I said all this introductory stuff, and after the sneeze, I asked the class if they were allowed to chew gum in school.  Of course they said, “no”.   And I said, “hmm… I probably shouldn’t either”.    So I then turned to R and asked him if he was afraid of germs.  He said no, and then said, “good, can you hold this for me?” and plucked the gum out my mouth and placed it in his hand.  He gave me a very gross face and the kids all “ewwwwed” and laughed.   I said, “that’s got my DNA all over it, too”.

I must say, I don’t think anything had EVER gone so smoothly and naturally and I was so relaxed and having fun with it, with the kids.  It was AMAZING.

Then we went on to the fake crime and I used the scenario that R was beat up (yes, by a GIRL, no less, because it was funnier that way), and that he scratched the person and she bled on him and I stuck the bloodstain and a hair I yanked from my head on his light blue shirt (which was perfect because the red felt popped on that color).  Only I said he wasn’t sure he got a good look at me so he didn’t know for sure that it was me.  I asked him if there was another girl teacher who looked a little like me (brown hair, brown eyes, similar build) and he said, “Ms.  L”.  Perfect.  So now we had 2 possible suspects and two pieces of evidence to analyze – blood and hair.

I went through the spiel of how I’d extract DNA from the stain, and had a transparency of the process.  I even went so far as to enlist the help of a student who held out her hands while I cut up a small portion of the stain, to get it ready for extraction, and how extraction was merely like cracking an egg open – opening up the cell wall to release the DNA inside.

Then I moved on to explain how they would get DNA from the suspects.  That’s where the tube of fake blood, the bloodspot on filter paper and the cotton swab came into play.  I told them that blood would be drawn into a tube, and then I’d take the squeeze bulb pipet and transfer a drop to the filter paper and extract if from the filter paper, just like the bloodstain.  Then I told them I hated needles and I was a big chicken and that I didn’t want to give my blood, but that they could still get DNA from me, by collecting cheek swabs.    It was then that I used R to illustrate how I would do that.  I had him open his mouth, I swabbed his cheeks, then held up the swab and said, “now I can get DNA from his cheek cells”.

It was so cool.

Then I moved on to the hair analysis.  I really didn’t have any experience explaining how trace chemistry actually does what they do with hair and fiber analysis, yet, I ended up finding a great pdf file online of the process, and I printed out some of the slides they made.  In particular, the kids loved the one about how to determine microscopically if a hair was human or animal (because there are very different morphologies to the interior of the hair).  The kids were oohing, and ahhing about the way the cat, dog, mouse, rabbit,  deer and human hair looks so very different.  Then I had a color photo of a human hair and it was so neat.  I told them that after trace chemistry did their analysis, they’d turn over the hair to me and I’d analyze it for DNA with the cells at the root of the strand.

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I had a printout of an actual DNA electropherogram, and a data table to show the DNA results of the evidence and the DNA results of me and the other teacher who were suspects.  I had the kids help me determine the match.  And they really “got” it.

Here’s the slides I used to explain DNA extraction and the electropherogram and the data table.

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I think I impressed the hell out of myself, that I actually put together a really quite amazing presentation in less than a weekend and that I was able to give a presentation so informative, yet at the level 4th graders could understand.

The talk, combined with letting the kids ask their questions all throughout the presentation, lasted exactly 1 hour, with additional time for them to ask more questions.  They had some really great questions and a few silly ones.  The most…um…interesting question came from a boy who quietly told me that a friend of his had a third nipple, and that he saw it when they went swimming last summer.   R and I were both taken aback a bit by the question, and I can’t remember what answer I gave him, just something along the lines that DNA had something to do with that, but I wasn’t sure what.

In my next post, I’ll share the second forensic lecture I’d given to fourth graders, one of whom was my own oldest daughter.


Overall, it was a smashing success. And it’s the kind of experience that makes me really want to teach science to kids for real.

Maybe it’s time I really think about getting that teaching certificate. Perhaps I will think seriously about it if don’t get call back about the job interview I had 2 Mondays ago.

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11 Responses to Teaching forensic DNA analysis to 4th graders

  1. jenn says:

    I really enjoyed your post. I am a stay at home Mom in Texas. I have a Master’s degree in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. After a few years at a boring job, I quit and spent one summer to get a teaching certificate. I taught for 4 years and I really enjoyed it. Plus, my research experience allowed me to bring so much more to my classes. The first year teaching was on of the most difficult experiences I have endured, but the second year was wonderful.

  2. theexplorationstation says:

    Oh, cool. Jenn.

    I only have a bachelor’s degree, but I ended up working for 12 years in the clinical lab setting – first in food microbiology, then in forensics, and finally in as a supervisor in molecular genetics. I haven’t “met” many scientific women turned teacher turned SAHMs. What grade did you teach?

    Hey, and if you don’t mind, I might actually email you privately to talk more.


  3. jenn says:

    I would not mind if you emailed me.

  4. theexplorationstation says:

    Thanks Jenn…I’ll email you this week.

  5. GillianO. Markey says:

    Loved your article! I am a veterinary surgeon, and am now doing a higher diploma in Primary teaching (4 to 12 year olds).
    I have 5th class, ( 10 year olds) for my final teaching practice, and would love to do a class like this, as my theme is “What makes me a special individual”. The school is not very hi-tech, so I was wondering if you know any sites where i could get slides etc to print out, of the hair samples etc.

    Well done to you

  6. theexplorationstation says:

    Thanks Gill…I will search for the link I had bookmarked (it’s on one of the computers I have at home, I don’t remember which one). I’ll try to get back to you by sometime tonight or tomorrow

  7. Holly Fingerle says:

    Could you email the sites that you used for your transparencies? I am homeschooler and we have a science club doing a Forensics unit currently. Total of 17 kids with average age of 12. We won’t be doing DNA analysis for a few more weeks. But hair analysis is next week. (Did handwriting analysis, and chromotagraphy exercises today). I have been looking for good images to show group of hair since our microscopes aren’t that great. Also, have been looking for better DNA visuals. Wondered if I ordered photobucket prints if I would be able to read the transparencies? Thanks for any help! Holly

  8. theexplorationstation says:

    This is the pdf file of the Hair and Fiber Analysis I pulled from the internet


    The color image of the hair I have to look for again. I’ll try.

    As far as my DNA slides…I’ll see what I can do to try and upload them to Scribd.

  9. Julie says:

    I am teaching the Detective badge to my Junior Girl Scouts and one requirement is to introduce them to DNA. Can I have some of these resources you spoke about above. I would love to know more about the pasta model, and how did you do the mini crime scene?

  10. theexplorationstation says:

    Julie –

    It might take me a day or two to track down the resources again. I’ll see what I can do. I will be giving this presentation to my daughter’s 4th grade class this week, so I’ll be updating some of the materials.

    Honestly, if you do an image search…there’s some great newer images out there.

    You can get a printout of the cells from this link…


    There’s a similar picture of uncoiled DNA from an animal cell here, in COLOR (scroll down)


    Like, I just bought this CSI DNA Build Kit from Toys R Us today for $18.


  11. TrulyRoxie says:

    I also came across your post while researching ways to teach DNA to 4th graders for the Junior Detective badge. Thank you for sharing your information!

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