Anna Garcia is dead, that much is certain. The yellow police tape that marks off a corner of the science lab at Grandview High School is a daily reminder of that.
Behind the tape, the evidence. Anna’s was a chaotic leave-taking. The toppled stool and desk lamp, the dropped orange juice glass, a syringe, seven white pills scattered on the linoleum all speak to that. There’s an outline done in marker and masking tape of where the body fell — a small red puddle near the head.
In a few minutes, lunch period will be over and some 22 gumshoes from Patricia Lindquist’s principles of biomedical science class will be all over the evidence.
Who killed her? Her estranged husband, Alex? Jilted lover Doug? BFF and business partner Lucy? Or maybe Anna, fictitious though she is, wasn’t murdered at all. Maybe she died of natural causes.
Finding out is a yearlong project for the 50-some students in two classes who will study DNA, fingerprinting, electrophoresis (the motion of dispersed particles in fluid under the influence of an electrified field) and the physics of blood-spatter patterns. Along the way, they’ll learn about diabetes and career options in health care.
It’s all part of a science curriculum, offered to schools across the country from Project Lead the Way, that combines lab and textbook learning into a problem for the group to solve. Project Lead the Way provides curricula for classes in science, technology, engineering and math — otherwise known as STEM classes.
The Project Lead the Way curriculum is written for all four years of high school, with the Anna Garcia case introducing it. The first two years are a study of body systems, and the third year is about different diseases, their causes and treatments. While learning about the body systems, students gradually build a clay mannequin. The culmination is a forensic autopsy (of newborn pigs from a biological supply company) the fourth year.
This is the first year for Grandview High to offer the unit, but some other schools have had it longer.
Fort Osage High School and some Lee’s Summit schools have offered it for about six years. In fact, teacher Peggy Hinzman at Summit Technology Academy was on the team that wrote the biomedical curriculum.
“It’s incredible how it has been spreading over the city,” she said.
Jennifer Daubendiek, who teaches the subject matter at Fort Osage High School, calls it “an awesome program.”
“The kids have to be responsible for their own learning. They do things in high school that sometimes they don’t even do in college,” she said. “With all the hands-on, it’s not just sit and git anymore.”
No “sitting and gitting” at Grandview High. That’s for sure.
Instead of reading it all from a textbook, students learn what they need to know as they solve the mystery. In fact, there is no textbook for the case of Anna Garcia but the handouts, lab result sheets and career journals that Lindquist prints out and the students compile every day.
And the occasional video.
Before a class on blood-spatter patterns, students pick up laptops from a wall cabinet and listen to a real-life technologist explain about her job teaching detectives what to look for at crime scenes.
Then they go into small groups to find out for themselves whether that red splotch behind the caution tape got there from a fainting spell or a blunt instrument.
After a quick break when students discuss the case and pick up paper towels, droppers and tape measures, the experiments begin. In one corner, junior David Cienfuegos discusses the height options.
“We’re going to drop from five feet, and then as if they were sitting on the stool,” he said.
Not far away, other students are absorbed in trying to match their spatters with the pattern behind the police tape. If Anna Garcia were hit on the head, how far would the blood fly?
Finally, the group consisting of Kiera Behrendt, Ozoemena Nweke, Rahshyia Powell and Tyler Hyde makes something of a breakthrough. Drops coming from close to the ground bead up and make a bigger puddle over time, looking a bit more like the evidence.
Everywhere else in the room, students are busy with the droppers. From chairs, from countertops, walking, standing still, the liquid goes pat, pat, pat on the paper towels.
It’s not real blood, of course, but food-colored corn syrup. The students also learn about blood typing, but don’t touch any actual blood.
Before class is over, they will compile their results and record their theories. Already there are quite a few.
William Clark, a senior, and Storm Willis, a freshman, consider the possibility that Anna Garcia climbed up on the stool to get her medicine and then fell off and hit her head.
“But then why didn’t the glass crack?” wondered Clark.
He also noted that one piece of background on “persons of interest” given to the class said Garcia had been seen walking her dog.
“The dog could have knocked her off her chair,” Willis said.
Although there’s a little bit of socializing, the class is mostly intent and focused on finding the answers. That’s what makes this program so good, says Lindquist, who has been teaching biology and chemistry for 33 years.
“Students seem to understand and learn it better when they can see a purpose for it,” she said. “If you make it more problem-based and more real-world, students seem to grasp the concepts, even the biology concepts, better.”
There’s a lot to get accomplished in the class period. After the experimentation (and the cleanup), students have to check their data and perhaps make an entry in the career journal that is part of the class. The career orientation is another big part of the curriculum, Lindquist said.
Principles of biomedical science is an elective at Grandview High School, giving an extra boost to the traditional freshman biology course. Students who sign up for it most likely have chosen health and human services as an emphasis and possible career interest, Lindquist said. The school asks students to choose one of three career areas — health and human services; engineering, manufacturing and technology; or arts and communications — when they begin high school.
“A lot of kids are interested in nursing careers or a medical career,” Lindquist said.
But often they don’t know what kinds of jobs there are other than doctor or nurse. The Anna Garcia unit exposes them to some other careers to consider, Lindquist said.
In the early weeks, the focus was on evidence-gathering, but the police tape and evidence scene eventually came down. The red corn syrup and oatmeal “vomit” do tend to dry out and attract pests, after all.
The class has now moved on to study food science and diabetes, which might have contributed to Anna Garcia’s demise.
Based on the mystery, the class will be exploring science concepts through the end of the year. And some students will continue the journey into the remainder of their high school careers, too.
Project Lead the Way has offered problem-based units since it launched in 12 upstate New York schools in 1997. The first curriculum to be offered was in engineering.
Now the group’s leaders say the curriculum is in 4,700 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Close to 90 schools in the Kansas City area offer some type of curriculum from Project Lead the Way, according to the project’s website. Besides engineering and biomedical science, there’s also a “gateway to technology” program for middle schools. Fourteen area schools offer the biomedical science program.
Teachers say they love the curriculum, even though the frequent experiments and printing of handouts make it more work for them. There’s the spoiler alert danger, for instance. Teachers have the option of manipulating the evidence so that there are alternative outcomes and the right answers can’t be gotten by looking through someone’s Twitter feed from previous years.
Hinzman said the program has had some good results. The vast majority of her students go on to a two- or four-year college, where they can apply the problem-solving logic in their coursework.
One student who was in the first biomed class at Summit Tech went on to design a hemostat for surgeries while at Kansas State University, Hinzman said, and is now going for a master’s degree in science of the brain.
Daubendiek, from Fort Osage, said she likes that the mystery death case provides a real-world aspect to the learning.
But is death perhaps too morbid for high school students? Teachers say they are cautious about how they deal with the subject matter. But there are ways to use the subject positively. The discussion of DNA analysis, for instance, offers a good opportunity to talk about medical ethics, Hinzman said.
So far, parents have not complained. Hinzman said she occasionally fields questions about the use of the pigs in the autopsy unit (they arrive already dead) but has not heard any complaints about the focus on death in the Garcia case.
Daubendiek said many parents support the program because they think biomedical science should naturally include death as part of the study.
“I think the parents are happy the kids are excited about what they’ve been learning,” she said.
When students are asked about the morbid aspect, they mostly shrug. In the age of crime investigation TV shows, the study of blood spatters has failed to creep them out, they said.
Tenth-grader Zaquoya Rogers took a second from her group’s spattering and measuring to explain:
“I might want to do that kind of work,” she said. “I was actually doing research to see if that is what I want to do.”