New science class in Pittsfield focuses on animal crimes

Posted Feb. 10, 2011, at 8:42 p.m.
Courtney Fowler (left) of Pittsfield and Kamerin Alspaugh of Burnham look for signs of clotting in simulated blood samples during a laboratory exercise Thursday in the wildlife forensics class at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield. The exercise taught students how to determine blood types.
Courtney Fowler (left) of Pittsfield and Kamerin Alspaugh of Burnham look for signs of clotting in simulated blood samples during a laboratory exercise Thursday in the wildlife forensics class at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield. The exercise taught students how to determine blood types.

PITTSFIELD,  Maine— When Maine Central Institute science department chairwoman Carole Boothroyd introduced a wildlife forensics class to the school’s curriculum last month, she expected it to focus squarely on science, but she was wrong.

Within the first few days of class, as students were introduced to the concepts of poaching, illegal wildlife trafficking and extinct species, Boothroyd realized that for most students, the subject triggered strong emotional reactions.

“Very quickly, I realized that these were very emotional and ethical issues,” Boothroyd said Thursday. “It became more than a science class when you see how humans are driving animals to extinction. The students kind of brought me into their thinking.”

With a focus on humans’ influences on animal species around the globe, the half-year class will take students from basic concepts of crimes against wildlife to the not-so-basic process of forensic investigations involving animals. By year’s end, the students will explore topics ranging from fur and organ identification to DNA testing.

Senior Judy Zhu, an exchange student from China, said the subject matter has influenced how she thinks about her role in the world.

“It’s important to protect animals that are endangered,” she said. “Everyone can do something in their life to protect them.”

For some students, the prospect of learning crime scene investigation techniques was too interesting to pass up. Sophomore Courtney Fowler of Pittsfield said she intends to become a forensic pathologist.

“I always liked the crime shows, like ‘CSI,’” she said. “I think it’s cool to find out how people died.”

On Thursday, after a detailed lesson about blood types and their compatibility, the students donned latex gloves and safety goggles to see how forensic investigators might use blood collected at a crime scene as evidence. Using simulated blood and protein solutions, they put the lesson about blood types to practical use, identi-fying the blood types of four “suspects” in a mule deer poaching case study. By watching for which mixtures produced clotting, they were able to distinguish between blood types A, B, AB and O.

Senior Tyler Malone of Detroit, who dropped a teaching assistant role to take wildlife forensics, said he was attracted to the subject because he wants to be a game warden.

“I jumped on it,” said Malone.

Boothroyd, who has taught at MCI for nine years, said instilling a love of science in her students is her ultimate goal, which she has found easier to do with lessons that emphasize experiments. Later this year, the school’s science faculty will set up a crime scene and ask students to cull suspects from the hundreds of people on the MCI campus.

“As we go along, this class will be doing some pretty technical lab work,” said Boothroyd. “It’s a fun way to get them learning science.”

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