Students at St. Pius X High School are ‘bleeding’ to get into new science class

TV listings, March 8

11:57 a.m., FestusTV — CSI St. Pius X

In this episode, special agent Aaron Portell leads St. Pius X investigators studying blood spatters in the case of Christopher Vaughn, who was found guilty of murdering his family after claiming his wife had shot at him — he suffered superficial wounds — before turning the gun on their three children, killing them and then herself. He's serving four life sentences.

Seniors Tryson Thornton, Abby Loveless and Anna Duepner meticulously executed their lab session in Room No. 320 at St. Pius X High School in Festus.

Duepner recorded the blood-spatter data, after Thornton had set up spatter papers at the correct angles on the floor and Loveless had dripped "blood" from a Beral-type pipet — think, eyedropper — on a lab tabletop, about 3 feet up.

Splat, splat, splat.

Depending on the paper's angle, the "blood" left different-sized spatters: near-circular splotches with tiny spikes on top and slightly longer spikes on the bottom, for paper at 80 degrees; increasingly oval splotches with longer spikes, for decreased angles; and finally, elongated splotches with long tails, for paper at 10 degrees.

This went on for about 25 minutes in the noon-hour class March 8, as teams of three — 27 students in all in Aaron Portell's forensics class — tested how blood acted when dripped on papers at different angles. Then, it continued after class as Thornton and Loveless switched roles and students hung around to watch.

Thornton simply "loves" the class, which has proven wildly popular among St. Pius juniors and seniors. Registration for the elective class, offered for the first time this semester, closed in a few hours, with enrollment significantly higher than typical St. Pius classes.

"This is a large class for us; most class sizes are 18 to 20," said Portell, who teaches biology. "We had to turn people away; students were on a waiting list."

That's because students "wanted it; we started because of their interest," said Portell, describing that as "pretty neat."

Registrar Anna Krussel shared the informal student feedback with science teachers Portell, Stephanie Roberts and Kaylee Unterbrink, and they made it so.

"Forensics deals with physics, chemistry and the biological sciences, so any one of us could have taught it," said Portell, a 1994 St. Pius graduate. "I wish we had something like this when I was in school. ... This is so cool."

Students would agree with that. So far, they've examined case studies including the unsolved murder of Jon-Benet Ramsey in December 1996, before the students were even born, and the murder case of Stella Nickell, who was convicted of killing her husband and another person with cyanide-laced headache tablets. Fingerprint evidence led to her conviction.

"I love the case studies," senior Liz Hilburn said, adding that she also has an affinity for Minute Mysteries that lead off classes. For a Minute Mystery, students read a one-page case synopsis, discuss and determine the outcome. A recent case detailed an office shooting, with the key clue being a closed desk drawer.

"I get to think about cases like an investigator," Hilburn said. "Some people might overlook clues that help solve the crime."

Unlike traditional classes with lectures, quizzes and tests, the forensics class deals mainly with lab reports and the Minute Mysteries.

"I like that it's real and hands on," Hilburn said.

Portell put together the curriculum this past summer, researching criminal cases and similar classes around the country. He described "taking a little of this and a little of that, then tweaking it a bit" to build the curriculum.

"I told the kids that I'm learning on the go just like them; next year we'll adjust based on their feedback," said Portell, whose biology background matches the class in that, for example, he "understands the makeup of blood."

Does he ever. He created the simulated blood by mixing corn syrup, water, corn starch, red food coloring and a smidgen of green food coloring.

"It looks real!" said Hilburn, who took care not to spill any on lab partner Abbey Miriani lest it appear as if she's cut and bleeding.

Multiple television drama shows — such as the CSI and Law & Order franchises, Dateline Murder Mysteries and the like — give Portell and the students much upon which to draw. Thornton enjoys murder-mystery programs and "binge-watching" prepared Loveless for the class, which makes Miranda Wegge "want to watch even more."

Portell likes to hear that.

"There's an increase in demand for these jobs; just about every small police department is looking at this stuff," he said. "Hopefully, some of the kids take a liking to it and maybe see something they want to pursue." 

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