Etowah students explore DNA, databases, and the Fourth Amendment
The teachers of Etowah High School have come together to give their senior class the learning experience of a lifetime.
The project was based upon the premise of whether or not people own their own DNA, because of the recent arrest of the Golden State Killer. In the case, authorities worked with Gedmatch.com, an open data personal genomics database and genealogy website. It was created as a genealogical analysis tool for amateur and professional researchers and genealogists.
An investigator from the case was able to match DNA from one of the crime scenes of this elusive ’70s killer to a distant family member.
“Instantly, the pool of suspects shrank from millions of people down to a single family,” according to a Washington Post story by Avi Selk, published April 28, 2018.
The Etowah seniors were given a fictional arson case to investigate, with a DNA component similar to another case, Maryland v. King, in which the defendant’s DNA was obtained for one crime, which linked him to an unrelated cold case.
The project culminated in a mock trial, exposing students to a real-world situation. The trial also allowed them to examine ethical issues as well, such as what really happens to DNA in the justice system. Every senior played an important role, from the prosecution to the defense, judge to jury.
The project was the result of previous years’ seniors becoming overwhelmed with individual class projects at the same time. The strenuous workload became such an issue that the students had to decide which ones they had to pass and which ones they could afford to fail.
To combat this issue, the science, history and English departments worked as one to come up with a cross-curricular idea that would allow all of the students to work together to solve an issue relating to a current event.
Each department was responsible for its own different component of the project.
In the science department, science teachers Karen Hammonds and Dr. Shelley Montgomery dealt with DNA, DNA profiling, DNA fingerprinting and DNA in court cases. The history portion, over which government and economics teachers Ryan McClendon and Brandon Johnson presided, dealt with court proceedings and the Fourth Amendment. The English topics, which dealt with research and legal briefs, were guided by English teacher Sandra Bost.
In addition to the high school’s teachers, real expert witnesses from the community, such as firefighters and policemen, volunteered their experiences to support the seniors’ verdicts. Even Attalla City Schools Superintendent Jeff Colegrove was called as a witness by the defense in one class to give testimony about a fire he and his family experienced.
The project lasted two weeks total, concluding in six trials that spanned across two days. In the end, no two trials reached the same verdict, despite covering the same case.
In addition to the senior class, the project reached some juniors, sophomores and freshmen as well. With the help of Bost, who also heads the journalism department along with Anna Usry, as well as the art department’s Rodney Jackson, they acted as courtroom photographers, investigative journalists and sketch artists, documenting the scenes as they happened and interviewing members of the court and audience.
The project was such a success this year that Etowah’s teachers plan to do it again next year, using this year’s experience to improve their ideas and correct their mistakes in the future.
Caylie Moore is a junior in Etowah High’s journalism department.