SHSU Aids High School Decomposition Project

SHSU Student Nikki Larson helps retrieve bug specimens from a dead animal during a high school decomposition project.
SHSU Student Nikki Larson helps retrieve bug specimens from a dead animal during a high school decomposition project. Photo courtesy of Wunsche Sr. High School.

Kara Marquez was so impressed by the human decomposition research facility at Sam Houston State University, she used it as a model for her forensic science class at Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring. Instead of human cadavers, she used animals at a facility provided by the Spring Creek Greenway to explain the process of decomposition.

Marquez, a SHSU graduate, learned about the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility during a summer teacher’s conference at the university. Inspired by Dr. Joan Bytheway, director of the facility, and two students who presented an overview of the research, Marquez set out to duplicate the project as part of her high school class.

"I wanted to re-create that experience," said Marquez. "Sam Houston’s facility is unique, and we are lucky that we can draw on their expertise. The students were really excited, but slightly apprehensive. Now I think 20 percent of the class plans to pursue a career in forensic science."

The four-week project, which was held at a remote location in Montgomery County, involved lessons on decomposition, entomology and anthropology. A total of 48 students visited dead animal specimens on a weekly basis to document the changes. The class included students interested in forensic science, law enforcement and medicine.

As a result of the studies, Marquez said students earned the highest scores ever on their entomology section of their recent midterm exams, and their attendance was exceptional.

"It’s absolutely the most interesting program we’ve done all year," said Lisa Chebret, senior internship coordinator at Wunsche Sr. High School. "We weren’t sure how the students would react, but they were totally engaged. They learned what it is like to be a forensic scientist. It gave them the opportunity to see the realism of being involved in forensic science. This was not just a story or a TV program. They got to see 12 animal progress through the different stages of decomposition."

Nick Scarlata and Nikki Larson, SHSU undergraduate students, taught the students about the stages of decomposition and showed a presentation about the body farm, preparing the class for what they would see. The SHSU students then helped the class through the process of examining the animal specimens and collecting bug samples.

"When we first got there, a lot of them where taken aback by it," said Scarlata. "They didn’t enjoy it and were grossed out by it. But as time when on, they got more into it and everyone was willing to handle the animals, take off the insects and collect the data. It was cool to see how they adapted to it."

The program was a collaborative effort among many agencies, including the Carl Wunsche Sr. High School, Sam Houston State University, the Spring Creek Greenway, and the Montgomery County Training and Firearms Range. As part of the program, students got a tour of the gun range and a talk on forensic logistics.

The program was patterned after the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility in Huntsville, one of only four "body farms" in the country. The state-of-the-art research and training facility is designed to advance academic and technical knowledge in the application of forensic science to the human body as it pertains to crime scenes and criminal activities.

Like the body farm, the Wunsche experiments included the collection and study of bugs to determine time and date of death as well as recording other factors such as weather and temperature changes, vegetation changes, maggot activity, scavenger activity, movement and dismemberment, and the stages of decomposition.

"One of the primary goals in establishing this research facility was the necessity for interdisciplinary and intercollegiate collaborations," said Dr. Bytheway. "This is the first high school-university collaboration and we hope to see more of this in the future. The test scores achieved by these students are a clear indication of how hands-on experience promotes long-term retention of information."

Sam Houston State University offers an undergraduate degree in forensic chemistry and a master’s degree in forensic science, as well as summer camps in forensic science for high school students and teachers.

Member of The Texas State University System