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Using online resources in teaching forensic science: An investigation into the types of online resources available and how they are used in schools

Paul McGlynn
National Institute of Forensic Science


In 2001, I was a part of the Teachers Release to Industry Program of the DEET, Victoria and VECCI obtaining a placement at the National Institute of Forensic Science. During the year I undertook a project on the use of forensic science to enhance the learning of science in secondary schools. This included a review of existing online material on forensic science and the development of online resources for teachers to use in delivering a science unit based on forensic science, which satisfies the Victorian CSF.


As a secondary school teacher with 13 years experience in teaching science, mathematics and information technology I have taught science classes from Years 7 to 12. From 1996 to 1999 I was the Learning Technology Coordinator at Langwarrin Secondary College, part of the Casey Science and Technology Cluster. In 1999, I taught an elective subject entitled "Science and the Law" which used forensic science to cover various topics in the science curriculum. In delivering the program I found it hard to access up to date and relevant resources that allowed me to effectively link forensic science to curriculum outcomes. Hence my perception of a need for a range of resources on forensic science. Given my interest in online learning I looked at the use of web based material to satisfy this need.

As part of my TRIP year I undertook a Masters' of Education project into how teachers can incorporate forensic science into the science curriculum to motivate students' interest in science. During this project I developed a series of online resources to aid teachers in delivering a unit on forensic science. This paper looks at how those teachers used those resources and extends to how online resources are used in general.

Preliminary surveys

In the early phase of the Masters project, surveys were sent to about 60 schools who had expressed interest in a forensic science careers day. This survey was to gain some background information upon why schools seemed interested in using forensic science as a theme for teaching science at a secondary level. Twenty-one responses were returned for analysis, eleven of which reported they were offering a forensic science unit in their school.

The preliminary survey also asked what additional resources teachers would find useful in teaching forensic science as a means to help guide the development of the online resources. In general the replies indicated extra resources in any and all of the areas suggested would be useful. The results for the 21 replies were:

  • Background information
18 requests
  • Case studies
20 requests
  • Worksheets
15 requests
  • Activities/experiments
18 requests
  • Reference lists
8 requests

Under the "Other" resources were listed; videos (3 requests), Internet links and guest speakers.

Following these returns a review of online resources was conducted. This suggested that a large amount of material is available but not in a form that is easily accessible or useable for classroom teachers. Material tended to be too broad or too specific. Some good educational material did exist for specific topics and for these links have been made.

Development of material

Based on these finding and my own experience the online resources, "Forensic Fact Files", were developed with support from my host employer, NIFS, for five chosen areas of fingerprints, DNA profiling, hair and fibres, anthropology (skeletons) and odontology (dentistry). These can be found at
The online resources developed supplied background and theoretical information on a number of areas of forensic science, some case studies (stories), activity sheets and links to references or other online resources. Two schools were then approached and introduced to the material for trialing. The schools were invited to use the material as part of a forensic science unit. In the case of the first school, they had never taught forensic science before, while the second had a long-standing unit on forensic science. Both schools were surveyed before and after the trial period with the role and value of the online resources analysed in the development and delivery of the unit to a number of classes.

It was not an objective of the project to set delivery methods for the resources or to limit the teacher to using these in the trials. The way the material is used in the classroom formed part of the analysis of their value.

Resource trials

The schools in the trial process had predominantly used their own resources and programs in teaching their forensic science unit. Either by using an existing program in one case or taking advantage of a chapter from a new textbook in the other as the core for the unit supplemented by other material. While both schools used the online material as a reference source it did not form the core of their unit. One reason given for this was the lack of reliable access to computers and/or the Internet either physically or for technical reasons. Another reason given was concern over loss of focus by students on the tasks set when working with computers and/or the Internet.

In terms of the online resources developed, "Forensic Fact Files", the overall analysis of their value was positive, though both teachers used them mainly as a supplement to existing material. They were seen as a worthwhile resource and with some refinement would be useful both as a teaching reference and a classroom tool.

My interpretation of this feedback would suggest that the resources as they exist are more useful as a reference source rather than for direct classroom use. Whether this is as a reference for teachers or as a research tool for students would depend upon the structure of the program within which they are used. In the long term whether the focus of the "Fact Files" changes or not will need to be considered. It may be that some redesign of the text structure and inclusion of images will maintain the value of the content, while making the pages more learner friendly.

Further research

Given some of the comments from these trials I have now begun to investigate more broadly how teachers use online resources for teaching forensic science and what resources are found useful. My own experience supports those views reported in the trial, in that the main of online resources use seems to be for research. The reasons do not necessarily relate to the educational value or presentation of the material.

While teachers will access whether a site is worthy to use based on educational values, useability and ability to grab and maintain the students' attention, other issues will also affect whether online resources are used by teachers in the classroom and how they are used.

Preliminary findings of my follow up research suggest that while some very good, interactive resources are available technical, structural and administrative problems discourage teachers from using them. A typical example seems to be the Cyber Sleuth program at Kilvington Secondary College, which involves online interaction with suspects and experts. While about a dozen schools join the program each semester, the number using it in full and to its conclusion is uncertain. Some of the reasons offered for this are courses not matching the time period of the Cyber Sleuth program, technical and computer access problems leading to loss of interest by students, and teachers.

One comment I have received from a teacher is that a site can be too interactive, leaving little time to carry out the teacher's own program of work.

Other issues have been raised. Given the nature of forensic science Net Nanny type program at schools can also be a hindrance, as can the grind of Internet traffic when many schools are online and hardware failure.


The trial results suggest that online resources are a useful reference source for teachers and students in the area of forensic science. They do not represent, nor should they be seen to represent, a stand-alone solution for engaging students in the learning process. Online resources have the potential to be one of a set of tools used by teachers in presenting a successful science curriculum based around the theme of forensic science.

It would appear that despite the expansion of the Internet and the promotion of online learning, for forensic science at least online resources continue to be used mainly as a reference source for teachers and a research tool for students. Further investigation is continuing into the general value of online resources and the effect of technical and administrative problems in limiting their use.

References and web links

Baird, J. R. (Ed.) (1993). Exploring Quality in Science Learning. Monash University Faculty of Education, Australia.

Churach, D. & Fisher, D. (1999). Science kids surf the Net: Effects on classroom environment. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. [verified 2 Sep 2002]

Franklin, S. & Peat, M. (2001). Managing change: The use of mixed delivery modes to increase learning opportunities. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 17(1), 37-49. [verified 2 Sep 2002]

McGlynn, P. (2001). Forensic Science as a Teaching Tool. Research Report, Monash University Faculty of Education, Australia.unpublished

CSF II Overview - CSF - Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Australia (verified February 2002) [verified 2 Sep 2002]

Curriculum Documents - James Cook University Library [verified 2 Sep 2002]

Cyber Sleuth - Kilvington Secondary College [verified 2 Sep 2002]

National Institute of Forensic Science [verified 2 Sep 2002]

VECCI - The Teacher Release to Industry Program [verified 2 Sep 2002]

Author: Paul McGlynn is currently working as a Project Officer with the National Institute of Forensic Science while on leave from the teaching profession. He has over 13 years of experience as a mathematics and science teacher in secondary schools and has evolved into an IT teacher. For lack of better-qualified individuals he took on the role of Coordinator of Learning Technologies and reluctant web guru for 4 years in his last school. In a previous life he was a Mechanical Design Engineer at the Government Aircraft Factories in Melbourne Australia. Paul can be contacted by email (, phone (+61 3 9459 4299) or post (Suite 1, R & D Park Centre, 2 Research Avenue, Bundoora, Vic 3083) if you wish to discuss his project.

Please cite as: McGlynn, P. (2002). Using online resources in teaching forensic science: An investigation into the types of online resources available and how they are used in schools. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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