Saturday, July 08, 2006

Camp Clue

This isn't your grandmother's summer camp:
Forensic pathology is not so different from a matching game -- only with bodies, according to Dr. Jan C. Garavaglia, Orange-Osceola's chief medical examiner and star of Discovery Health's Dr. G: Medical Examiner.

Solving crimes involves matching features of human bones to photos that help determine their gender and age, Garavaglia told a group of about 10 middle-schoolers Thursday at a forensic-science camp at the Orlando Science Center.

The science center invited Garavaglia to speak to the children at the weeklong camp about her job.

She brought human skulls, pelvises and thighbones from her lab to give the children a small understanding of forensic pathology and explain how she uses the bones left behind when we die.

"I have to figure out by what they look like, how did they die?" she told her audience. "You're putting the pieces of the puzzle together."

At the science center's Dr. Dare's Laboratory, the group compared the sizes and shapes of bones, looked for telltale ridges and bumps and spotted the different dental cavities that help determine a person's identity.

"That'll make you brush your teeth," she said.

The organizers hope that the summer camps, which focus on various topics, will inspire middle-schoolers to see that science isn't just boring stuff but the daily process of problem-solving that everyone uses, said Kim Hunter, the center's vice president of the participant experience.

"Children often think a scientist is a stuffy Ph.D. in a lab coat," Hunter said, an image that doesn't apply to Garavaglia. "She's such a normal person. She shows people that even the best scientists have to go back . . . and scratch their heads."

The appeal of forensic science is that it shows children not only that science is exciting, but also useful and relevant to their lives, said Shari Waters, science-education specialist.

"The big question with this age group is, 'Why do I have to know this?' " Waters said. "[The camp] really draws them in. It makes it relatable to them."

The campers spent the week learning about crime scenes, lifting fingerprints and identifying chemical substances and blood types. Garavaglia spoke about the field's history and magnified a student's sweatshirt to show how she looks for suspicious fibers on a person's clothes. After she left, the students were scheduled to dissect fetal pigs that organizers tampered with to make them resemble victims of an unnatural death. Today, the campers will head to a police agency's crime lab.

"Forensic science is so popular with kids," who are especially intrigued by the various television shows, Waters said.

However, it's some of those television misconceptions that Garavaglia wants to clear up for the students.

"I try to give a more accurate picture of what we do, and it may not be as glamorous as television," she said. "They [TV shows] make it seem like all we do is homicide, but a lot of our caseload is natural deaths and auto accidents."

Like any job, she said, there are always less-pleasant aspects, such as dull moments or rotting corpses.

"They're smelly, they're green, but we still have to figure out what happened," she told the campers.

And though forensic scientists are in demand, the camp's goal is not to produce budding medical examiners.

But some campers were already considering the job.

Joseph D'Agostino, a seventh-grader at Jackson Middle School, was impressed with Garavaglia's presentation. The 12-year-old said -- in truly scientific fashion -- that there was a 75 percent chance he might consider the field.

"It was fabulous," he said. "It was cool because we got to observe the human skull, bones, jaw. Very intimidating. I'm into it."

Garavaglia, a mother of two sons, has experience teaching children. Years ago, she brought a brain to show the students on one classroom visit.

"They would ask me questions that were so deep," she said.

And it's the questions that matter when it comes to science. Hunter said the goal is to make sure children leave with more sophisticated questions to bring to school.

Garavaglia had different aspirations as the session ended.

"I hope I never see you in my ward!" she called out.
I think that it's fine and dandy for kids to go to these highly specialized "educational" summer camps, but my own summer camp memories were much more like the "Camp Granada" in this song.
See our latest education-related entries right here.