NCSSM instructor Nina Kornegay (lower right-hand corner) teaches Honors Forensic Science to students across the state from the distance learning studios on NCSSM’s Durham campus.


The tale the blood tells: Students across NC explore forensic science

It’s the week before Halloween, and NCSSM instructor Nina Kornegay appears onscreen in front of a wall stained with bright red blood like an ominous Jackson Pollock painting. It’s beyond eerie.

“Okay,” Kornegay says, looking into the camera. “We’re going to be doing blood spatter today, which should be super fun.”

There’s no crime scene here. The bloody wall is a graphic digitally imposed on the studio green-screen beyond Kornegay, and the exercise in blood spatter analysis is part of the Honors Forensic Science course that Kornegay is teaching to students throughout the state through NCSSM’s distance learning studios. This 10:15 am class, which broadcasts live to 12 students drawn from Mt. Airy, E. A. Laney, Roanoke Rapids, Starmount, Lee County, and Falls Lake Academy high schools, is the second forensics class of the day for Kornegay. Her earlier class reached 21 students in five more schools. Another 25 students from 23 schools across the state participate in her class through NCSSM Online. 

Kornegay leads the students through a series of exercises demonstrating the effect that height and angle have on blood spatter. Students with blue latex gloves on their hands stand in chairs to alter distances and tilt surfaces at different angles as they squeeze synthetic blood from droppers. Using vinyl measuring tapes, they measure the diameters and take notes on the resulting patterns, all of which differ. Such differences play a significant role in helping forensic investigators determine the circumstances — from which direction did a blow come? How far away might the perpetrator have been standing? Was there possibly more than one weapon? — surrounding a crime.

But there’s far more than blood spatter being examined in the course. By semester’s end, students will have examined techniques in other specialized fields such as fingerprinting, DNA collection, toxicology, pathology, forensic archaeology, and death and decomposition.

The larger skills reinforced in Kornegay’s class are not limited to forensic science. Exploration, analysis, and discovery drive instruction, just as in other disciplines. 

Honors Forensic Science is not a course frequently found in North Carolina’s public high schools. Student demand per individual school is not high enough to warrant full-time on-site staff. Even if it were, it would still be a significant challenge for local school systems to find teaching talent with the specialized qualifications.

That’s what makes the NCSSM distance learning model so successful. A single skilled teacher like Kornegay, whose toxicology background includes positions at corporate labs and the state medical examiner’s office, can extend the classroom to students anywhere in the state. On-site facilitators at each participating school also play a vital role, providing technical oversight and instructional support as needed. Without them, and the commitment of their schools, the NCSSM model simply would not work.

“Our greatest asset is our partner schools,” says Kendall Hageman-Mays, NCSSM’s Director of Distance Education & Extended Programs. “With them we are expanding access to high quality STEM opportunities to students across our state.

“The diversity of students from across the state adds a richness to our partnerships and programing that’s unparalleled,” Hageman-Mays adds. “Being able to engage with students from the mountains to the coast is something our faculty really value.”

Student enrollment varies from school to school. Some sites in the mid-morning broadcast have four students gathered together in a typical classroom. They appear to Kornegay as one video block among several in large monitors in front of her in the studio where she is teaching. Other sites have two students, while some have just one. Planned tweaks to course delivery in upcoming semesters will add more schools and students to the course roster. 

Anastasia “Anya” Schrader is the only student from Lee County High School in the class. The sophomore joins in from a large, textbook-filled storage closet. Though unconventional, the setup allows Anya to focus on her work without any distraction.

It was her mother’s taste in TV drama that led Anya to forensics. “My mom likes to watch the crime shows,” she says, “and so it’s always sort of been in my head [that] this is pretty cool. When I saw it on the listing, out of all the courses this was the one that I think I would enjoy the most and that I’d be able to do the best in.”

Kaitlyn Johnson, a junior at Roanoke Rapids High School, had heard of NCSSM but knew nothing about the school until her school’s librarian told her about NCSSM’s distance learning programming. Now she logs into the forensic science class from the school’s library.

The class is in direct alignment with Kaitlyn’s career ambitions.

“I want to do something in forensic science after college,” she says. “I’m thinking about [becoming] a medical examiner.”

Kaitlyn had never taken a distance learning course before, so it took awhile for her to adjust to the format. “But now,” she says, “I like taking classes like this better than taking regular classes at school. I think I learn better from it. It’s hands-on and you don’t get as distracted as easily as you would in a regular classroom.”

While the class is somewhat unusual for high school, the kids are still kids, and they have developed a rapport with Kornegay, whom they call “Ms. K.” Allie Pooley at Laney High School in Wilmington observes a group activity from the side as her friends arrange materials. They “fired” her, Allie protests with a smile to Kornegay, for getting the blood spatters too close together. Her friends nod in agreement as they continue working. “And I was their best worker!” She returns to the task, offering suggestions from the periphery.

Two hundred fifty-five miles away at Mt. Airy High School, near the Virginia border, Morgan Hiatt finishes her activity early and leans back in her chair. In an instant she is collapsing to the floor in stages as her chair slides from beneath her, desperately reaching for a grasp on stationary objects that remain just beyond her reach. She and Kornegay erupt into laughter. “Is there any way to go back and watch that?” Morgan asks once she has righted herself.

“I’ll send you the clip,” Kornegay says, still giggling.

By now Kornegay is surrounded by synthetic blood — on printer paper, on cardstock, on styrofoam and a paper bag. With class winding down she looks ahead to the students’ final project, suggesting for future blood spatter experiments they could use materials other than those used in class to generate results. Different types and sizes of droppers, for instance. Or a bat.

“I actually want to do that in the future,” Kornegay says, mischievousness tinting her voice. “It sounds a little therapeutic.”

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