Blood spatter. DNA. Fibers. Murder. Mystery.

Blood spatter. DNA. Fibers. Murder. Mystery.

While this may sound like the description of a primetime television show, it’s actually the curriculum for the Crime Scene Investigation Camp held last week at the Gulf/Franklin Campus of Gulf Coast State College.

The 35 students from Gulf, Franklin and Calhoun Counties came together for a four-day crash course in forensic science where they had to solve a faux murder by utilizing a scientific approach to decoding the evidence.

They looked at DNA under microscopes, learned how to trace blood spatter to determine where the attack occurred and how to differentiate bite marks.

The class culminated with a mock trial at the Gulf County Courthouse on Thursday where the students attempted to put the correct “suspect” behind bars.

Students played various roles from prosecutors to defense lawyers to witnesses to suspects. The class presented their evidence before a jury and the case was presided over by County Judge Tim McFarland.

 The class was developed by the Panhandle Area Education Consortium’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) group to provide opportunities to gifted or talented students in rural areas that they may not receive in the classroom.

This is the second year of a three-year project between PAEC, Heartland Educational Consortium and the Northwest Florida Education Consortium.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to expose students to things they may not have knowledge of,” said Brenda Crouch, project manager for PAEC.

The former Marianna science teacher sees STEM careers as vital to the economy and she aided in the creation of seven programs around the state to bring alternative careers to the forefront of rural youths.

The programs rotate each year and in addition to the crime scene investigation class they’ve also developed curriculums for robotics, nano, ecological and emerging technology challenges.

“These classes give the students an understanding of real scientific work,” said Crouch. “We’re working with districts to up the number of rigorous STEM courses offered so that students can compete at the secondary level.”

The program currently serves 998 students in Florida and the goal was to build a prototype of a program that could potentially become a staple of education in rural areas like Gulf County.

Students were nominated for the program by their teachers or guidance counselors with special consideration given to those who had excelled in math and the sciences.

“Some kids showed extreme interest in the class,” said Kim McFarland, geometry teacher at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School and an assistant in the CSI classrooms. “We would take the students to the next level during school if only we had more time.”

McFarland applauded the program for not only the hands-on experience the class offered, but the role it played in recognizing students and their gifts.

“When we heard about the program, we thought of students who would eat that stuff up,” she said. “You recognize the kids in class who are interested. They’re the ones asking deep questions.”

McFarland, along with Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School science teacher Scott Lamberson and Blountstown math and science teacher Amanda McGhee also helped out in the classrooms as mentor teachers.

Students in the program also have access to STEM-centric counselors and meet with representatives four times a year.

These counselors keep students informed on new and exciting science-related jobs and help them figure out the best route toward achieving their career goals. In the classroom, the students have an opportunity to gain additional knowledge while working and collaborating with other gifted students who share their interests.

Haley Anderson, who will start her junior year at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School in the fall, enjoyed the class but is still trying to decide on her career plans. She’s currently torn between marine biology and criminal investigative services.

Even if she wasn’t able to crack the case on her career aspirations, she was happy to make new friends in her classmates, who also found the camp to be a lot of fun.

“I barely knew anyone on Monday, but now we’re all friends,” said Anderson. “It’s an amazing opportunity and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Crouch noted that jobs in STEM-related fields are recession proof and it’s a good time to explore careers in the worlds of science, math and engineering.

“Florida has an unfilled STEM pipeline,” said Crouch. “The available jobs outnumber the qualified applicants.”