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When the students studying forensics at the Academy for Health Careers in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, gather in the school’s courtyard on a cool morning in May, they steel themselves before approaching the five small plastic food containers teacher Candice Flemming has placed outside.
Inside those containers they won’t find anything remotely appetizing: They hold a swarm of maggots and flies feasting on a chunk of rotting beef kidney. The smell will send most of the students reeling back — before curiosity and the demands of classwork reel them back in. Shouts of disgust and “I’m not holding it” die down. That’s when the students don goggles or pick up notebooks and get down to business.
Their task: Examining the rotting beef kidney or the “corpse” and collecting evidence — including temperature and insect activity — that can provide clues to how long the corpse has been dead. To prepare for the lab, every week for five weeks Flemming placed a new beef kidney outside in a small container (put in a cage so no animals could get to it) so each specimen would be in a different stage of decay.
“This is my favorite lab,” says Flemming, “one I enjoy most because of the extreme reactions of the kids.” It’s the entomology chapter of her forensics class and the final project for the year. The 29 students, who are mostly sophomores, form teams of five; one is the appointed data recorder, and the others gather the evidence of how “the corpse” looks and smells and pick out insects with tweezers. They’ll also factor in what they’ve learned in class about the impact of weather and the lifecycle of maggots (it takes about two weeks for a maggot to develop into a fly). It all adds up to a real-life “time stamp” on a decomposing corpse.
“It definitely brings it to life,” says Rosa, 15, a fan of “CSI” and “The Walking Dead,” who doesn’t hesitate to make the human connection: “The smells and the way it looks, that happens to you when you’re dead.”
Zokyah, her classmate, wore safety goggles (“so the maggots don’t jump up at you”) and was adept at handling tweezers to examine the bugs on the beef kidney. “I learned a lot in this class,” she says. “There are not a lot of schools where you get to do this.”
Flemming has been teaching at the Academy for Health Careers for two years but already has made a great impression on the school community. “She’s been remarkable,” says Chapter Leader Terrance Holder. “She has motivated students to take an interest in science and forensics.”
Flemming also collaborates with other teachers. For example, for a unit on bioethics she collaborated with ELA teacher Edward Stapleton, who was teaching the story of Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cancerous cells were used for decades by scientists for genetic research without her consent or compensation. Lacks’ story was recently the subject of an award-winning book and a movie.
“Candice was very enthusiastic and proactive about finding common links,” says Stapleton, adding that they are looking for ways to work together again to bolster writing skills in Flemming’s class.
A large part of Flemming’s satisfaction comes from seeing students gain confidence. During the year, every student has to teach for a day and provide activities that will demonstrate the class understood the lesson.
“I give them the topic but they have to do the research, and they’re graded on presentation and accuracy,” says Flemming, who is in her fifth year of teaching.
Although she looks like a student herself, Flemming commands respect in the classroom without raising her voice. But that doesn’t stop some students from grumbling.
“They accuse me of being over the top, but I am ‘too much’ for a reason,” Flemming says. “I want to show them they can do what they thought they couldn’t do. They huff and puff, ‘I’m not touching any maggots!’ But oh, snap, it’s right in front of them now, and it’s a challenge.”
Flemming opens a door to personal growth, and before students know it they’ve stepped through.
That’s part of her plan, too. “It’s a situation,” she says, “that gives them the opportunity to surprise themselves: ‘I didn’t know I could do that! What else can I do?’”
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