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Local/Regional Neighborhoods News Item Wednesday, July 28, 2004
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Forensics class scores hit  
North Oldham teacher finds students enjoy crime-solving aspect, hopes to publish textbook
By Tonia Holbrook
The Courier-Journal

Photos by Bill Luster, The Courier-Journal
North Oldham High School forensic chemistry teacher Brennon Sapp, right, talked with students Kelly Spratte-Lennington, left, and Tamara Kays about the equipment, including toy weapons, he uses in the highly popular class.

Television programs on forensic science have fueled the trend of such classes across the country. The book Sapp wrote for his classes is pictured at left. He says he would like to find a publisher for the text, which is geared to high school students.

Brennon Sapp's students at North Oldham High School get to shoot marbles at panels of tempered glass to watch them shatter into a million tiny bits.

The exercise plays into Sapp's theory that few things hold students' interest as effectively as destruction, but it also teaches them how to determine the direction from which a bullet may have entered the glass.

This and other experiments in Sapp's forensic chemistry class show students how investigators use science to piece together evidence from crime scenes. Such classes are a growing trend across the country, fueled in part by the popularity of television shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Despite the fervor, which Sapp said has grown exponentially in the eight years he has taught forensic chemistry, he claims there aren't textbooks on the market suitable for high school students.

So he wrote his own.

Sapp, 33, is trying to find a publisher for "Forensics Illustrated: Step Under the Tape" and its accompanying CD-ROM. It's being used as the text for forensics classes at North Oldham and Grayson County High School, where Sapp taught for nine years.

His foray into forensics started in 1995, when Grayson County High's science department and Sapp, its chairman, were looking to encourage more students to take upper-level science courses.

At that time, the nation and Sapp's students were consumed with the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Some recorded each day of the trial for later viewing and others stayed home to watch the spectacle live.

Sapp said he figured that if students were so interested in the Simpson trial, they'd be interested in a course about the science of criminal investigations.

He was right.

Before leaving Grayson County High in the spring of 2003, Sapp was teaching five sections of forensics with about 35 students in each.

"I really didn't think it would explode like that," he said.

The explosion is scheduled to hit North Oldham High this fall. Last spring, when Sapp introduced forensic chemistry at the school, he taught about 30 students in one section. So far, 120 students have signed up for the class this fall. That's 20 percent of the student body.

Word of the course's unconventional methods spread quickly, said Kelly Spratte-Lennington and Tamara Kays, who took the class as juniors last year.

"Everything you love about science classes is all rolled into forensics," Kelly said.

The class blends a bit of several sciences chemistry, with the study of poison and drug testing; biology, with the study of soils and hair; and psychology, with profiling criminals.

The students gradually move to the more intense subjects, studying autopsy reports and photos some of them famous, including those of President John F. Kennedy and JonBenet Ramsey. Parents sign permission slips twice during the semester, authorizing their children to view the graphic images.

Students also read Thomas Harris' hit novels "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs" and then watch the films to discuss investigative methods used in the stories.

Sapp said that although many of his students took the class because they are interested in careers involving forensics, watching "CSI" seemed to reinforce their interest.

Kelly said she found herself watching the show and saying, "Hey, I just learned that." And Tamara, who watches the show with her father, said she would explain to him, "Dad, that's a radial fracture."

Sapp said students came to class every Friday discussing the previous night's episode, sometimes debunking minor flaws in its science.

Students aren't the only ones who get a kick out of the forensic science class, Sapp said.

"One main reason I teach this class is that it's just fun," he said.

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