Fifteen-year-old Daniel Timmins wants to be a detective. At home, he watches murder mystery television programs like Castle, Bones, Psych and Dexter.
At school, he is enrolled in forensics, the newest science class on the Tioga High School campus.
“I got to see things on the sets of shows that I’ve seen before and then see what they get to do with evidence,” said Timmins, of Moccasin. “I took this class because I thought I could do it myself.”
Over the course of the year-long curriculum, Timmins and his classmates delved into high-profile murder cases — among them the O.J. Simpson trial, the murder of Jonbenet Ramsey and Yosemite National Park serial killer Cary Stayner — examined (faux) blood spatter patterns and performed a fingerprint analysis.
They’ve learned forensics is much more than a game of cops and robbers.
“There are drugs and there are murders in this world, and being able to take this class is a part of that reality. Growing up, it was a shame to talk about drugs or murders in this field, so being in this class is very eye opening because it shows this is real life,” said junior Monika Medina, 16.
Forensics at Tioga High School is in its first year, and its novelty is reflected in its small class size. One student was absent on Thursday, bringing attendance to five sophomores and juniors.
Their teacher, Tina Lanter, was absent Thursday, but the students flipped through their diagram-laden notebooks and referenced a giant evidence board (complete with gruesome and gory photographs) on the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
The substitute teacher brought the students two textbooks with “FORENSICS” emblazoned across the cover.
“Do you guys use these?” she asked Medina.
“No, we don't,” Medina responded.
Instead, Medina explained, much of their education was through hands-on activities, often directed by Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Officer Ashley Boujikian.
Inside of a notebook, a strip of transparent plastic was covered in the arches, ridges and whorls of Medina’s fingerprints.
Medina outlined the process: she wrapped her hands around a glass Starbucks bottle, then used a brush to gently dust it. She then laid a piece of tape across it, which, when removed, revealed her marks.
“It was super cool to see what steps they take and how easy it is to take DNA off it. It’s more fun of a class to be hands-on instead of reading about it from a textbook,” she said.
Tioga High School Principal Ryan Dutton said forensics was selected to be a part of science curriculum because many students were seeking career education options as opposed to college credit.
“It’s more than competing with other high schools in the county. To me, it's knowing some kids will succeed in vocationally specific courses,” Dutton said. “How can we get them out there because we know a job is available for them?”
Dutton said the elective course fulfills a science and lab credit for Tioga High School graduation. Students also have to complete biology and chemistry as a requirement. In future years, the school hopes to implement a forensics course called “Secrets of the Dead” to secure a college credit approved curriculum.
Lexie Baker, 16, a sophomore from Groveland, said she enrolled because she may want to be a cop one day. But she’s changed her mind because of the graphic nature of the class and she’s attracted to a more holistic science course, sports medicine.
“I wasn’t thinking it was going to be that graphic,” she said. “But now if I’m watching the shows, I’ll see that they’re doing something wrong.”
At its root, forensics is an applied science class, complete with biology and chemistry labs to examine to interaction of substances with their surroundings.
A series of whiteboards showed blotches of “blood” — sugar, water and food dye — to examine the velocity of attack and the subsequent drip pattern. The boards indicated to possible causes of death (shooting or stabbing) as well as the position of where a killing occurred, the students said.
Looking deeper into microbiology, the students also designed 3D dioramas of a vessel and the compounds contained in human blood.
Field trips to the Tuolumne County Jail and the Department of Justice Crime lab in Ripon with the Don Pedro Law Enforcement Club also emphasized the practical applications of their studies.
In Ripon, the students saw a DUI blood testing machine, which pressurized a test sample to determine blood alcohol content. They saw examples of confiscated narcotics, like methamphetamine.
A few of them were fascinated by a coffin-shaped machine filled with water, which criminalists use to test firearm ballistics.
Medina said she wants to attend San Jose State or Chico State to study speech pathology, though forensic science may be a close second. She joined the class because she admired her grandfather, a former Tuolumne County Sheriff’s deputy.
“Growing up with him, I learned how he handled situations. I learned how much hard work it is in that field and how strong and tolerant you have to be with people like that,” she said.