Rockville High School ninth-grader Annabelle Heister is interested in forensic science and watches crime investigation shows on TV.
Wednesday she got to hear the real life experiences of forensic anthropologist Franklin Damann from the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring.
Damann spoke to biology students at the Rockville school as part of the “Nifty Fifty (times 3)” program that sends scientists to local middle and high schools to encourage interest in science careers. Nifty Fifty, which originally sent 50 scientists to schools, but which has grown to include more, precedes the USA Science and Engineering Festival which is scheduled to be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., April 24-27. The festival is free and open to people of all ages, Lawrence Bock, the festival founder said. This is the third Nifty Fifty speaker series held in Montgomery County.
“This is a nice way to get into forensics, a good sneak peek,” 14-year-old Annabelle said. “I like hearing about all his own experiences.”
Accompanying his talk with slides, Damann showed the students how scientists take a box of bones and bone-like fragments and make sense of them. Some of the objects collected at a crime scene or site of a disaster might be food fragments like chicken wings or even very old wood. A scientist needs to use education and experience to put together a correct picture, Damann said.
He said the most interesting part of his career has been helping family members get answers about what happened to their missing loved ones.
“On the forensics side I like being able to use skills I’ve learned through school and professional work experience to help [families],” he said.
Damann spent a number of years working for the Department of Defense Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii where he did field work throughout Southeast Asia searching for missing service members. He showed students photo of places where he did the work and specific techniques used. One grid, sectioned so scientists would know exactly where items came from, overlaid a photo of the area to give an even clearer picture of the terrain. Another showed Damann sitting on location writing in his notebook.
“It is important to document everything,” he said.
Ninth-grader Jonathan Leroy, 15, said he thought the talk pretty interesting and though he does not yet know what his career path will be thinks it is important to keep and open mind about possibilities.
“We saw a lot of new things about bones and how they decay,” he said.
Sarah Day, who teaches biology for grades 9-12, said Damann’s talk was a good opportunity to expose the students to a different career in science.
“I love how he showed the data,” she said. “That is the kind of critical thinking we are trying to get the students to use.”
The USA Science and Engineering Festival was first held in Oct. 2010, another was in 2012 and this, the third, will be April 2014. It was started by Bock, an entrepreneur who said he had trouble finding scientists to hire. People were not going into science careers he said, so he decided to do something to show students the possibilities of science and encourage them to go into science careers. Bock said he does not have enough long term data to know if the Nifty Fifty speakers and the festival are making a difference, but he said he does have data proving more people and interested in attending the festival each year. Over 34,000 people have registered for the festival’s “Sneak Peek Friday,” which is open to school groups and military, up from 14,000 in 2012.
“You get what you celebrate,” Bock said, explaining the festival. “It’s a cool event and it has grown tremendously.”