Students in Canyon Del Oro High School’s forensics class may have a bit more experience than their competition when they head to Phoenix on April 19-20 to compete in the annual state forensics competition.

That’s because dozens of seniors in Mitzi Wieduwilt’s forensics class had the opportunity to visit the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office on March 12, getting some real-life, hands-on education in the forensics field with some of the county’s top experts.

Wieduwilt, in her third year teaching the program, said there is significant value in getting students out of the classroom and more directly involved with the field of study.

“We can look at fake bones in the classroom all day,” said Wieduwilt as her students examined actual skeletal remains. “These were real people, and to make that connection that these people were actually once alive – it’s just different.”

Students were taught methods to determine, based on skeletal remains, the height, sex, and age of a person who might otherwise be unidentifiable. 

Also elaborating on the human body was Physician’s Assistant Christopher Dunne, who passed around various body organs to demonstrate the difference between healthy and unhealthy lifestyle choices.  

Senior Andy Boyan felt the overall experience was a beneficial supplement to classroom work.

“I kind of see taking the class as a prerequisite to taking this field trip,” he said. “It helped me understand everything we talked about today.”

The graphic, yet realistic, nature of life and death were not limited to skeletal remains or organs; students also had the chance to interpret photo slides of actual crime or death scenes with Forensic Medical Investigator Gene Hernandez. Given only some preliminary information and a few photos, students were asked to conclude whether the death had resulted from homicide, suicide, or as a natural occurrence. 

In the case of a homicide, Hernandez outlined the importance of paying attention to detail, such as in the case of a gunshot wound, where forensic evidence can provide substantial information that would otherwise be overlooked, such as determining the proximity of the gunshot to the victim, which can be pinpointed by leftover residue or unburned gun powder, or lack thereof.

Students were not unfamiliar with such information, as School Resource Officer Shawn Benjamin is a familiar face in the forensics classroom, helping teach on a regular basis.

“I can’t even tell you how important she has been for our class, and in helping train these kids for competition,” said Wiedulwilt.

Overall, Hernandez said the experience is not one that should be taken for granted.

“This is an incredible opportunity,” he said to the students. “I go to a number of different high schools and to Pima College, and you guys are the only school that gets to come to the Medical Examiner’s Office. You guys are pretty lucky to get to do this.”

After about two hours of presentations, it was back to school for the forensics students, who no doubt had plenty to discuss on the road.   

“The intent of this trip was to generate interest and to get these kids asking questions, and I think we did that,” said Wiedulwilt. 

CDO will look to repeat last year’s first-place win at state after they defeated five other Arizona teams. In the competition, team members are presented with a mock-murder scene and asked to solve it by collecting evidence, interviewing suspects, and sharing information.

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