How To: Set Up Your Own Body Farm

By Carol Schutt

I have used  forensic science as a way to teach chemistry and physics for eight years at James C. Enochs High School in Modesto, California.  This past year I was told I would also be teaching Integrated Forensic Science to freshman. In our program we use the Integrated Science curriculum accepted by the State of California as our backdrop, then I use the forensics to tie it all together for a smooth fit.  It is important to note that my students have varying ability levels.  I have students who are very talented working  in the same class as students with special needs and students who have yet to find their way academically.  My group is definitely diverse in talents, ethnicity, background, language ability, and interest.  It is important because of how well this project worked for all of these kids.

Our program is a four year pathway and I wanted to make sure that their entry year was exciting and stimulating so that they would want to continue on in the program.  After having read several books on forensic anthropology and forensic entomology as they are used in crime scene investigation, I decided to try to establish a Body Farm so my students could really do some science like the professionals do.  I spent my first three years after college doing research, developing experiments, collecting data, and writing articles for professional journals so I felt confident that this would be a rewarding learning experience for my students.  All I needed now was permission from the principal, a site, and materials to make it all happen.  I was surprised by the positive reaction to what I wanted to do and the level of support was wonderful.

The first task, after obtaining permission from the principal, was to find a site that could be secured.  Our head custodian, John, took me on a trip in one of the golf carts we have on campus, out to the back of the lot where he and the principal had agreed we could run the experiments.  I then needed to secure the site, so I bought a 6’ x 12” dog run.  The dog run is a modular set up that can be added to for future experiments.  The custodial staff was fantastic and they set it up so that we had enough panels left over that they were able to put a roof on the run so that when it was locked, it was completely secured from vandals.

Once the site was secured, it was time to prepare my students for experiments on decomposition and entomology.  Our first task was to familiarize them with what a Body Farm is.  I took my classes to the library and we researched the topics of decomposition and entomology and how these things are used to help detectives solve crimes.  We had some frustration because our district blocks websites that it deems inappropriate, and students using the search terms “dead bodies” and “human decomposition” were having a hard time.  In fact, the Body Farm website for the University of Tennessee was blocked until the librarian called and asked that it be unblocked so my students could read up on the world of Dr. Bass and the original Body Farm.  The assignment at the computer lab was to find three legitimate sources of information.  I used this exercise as a way to teach students about using sources from the internet, for collecting information on what they were going to study, for seeing the state of the research on decomposition, and for learning how to begin to use outside sources to facilitate research.  I began using the idea of APA formatting because in our district, MLA is what the students are taught when they write a research paper.  It was important for them to understand that in addition to scientific methodologies for conducting research, scientists also have rules and regulations for how the results of their research is presented to the public.  It was my intention for my freshman to make their first attempt at an APA journal article at the end of their research project.

In order to set up the research, I came up with a list of fifteen different projects I thought we could do in our 6’ x 12’ space.  I explained to the students that our test subjects would be store-bought chickens instead of mammals because I figured since they had all seen a chicken that they would not be focused on what was decomposing as much as they would focus on the process.  The fifteen experiments included things like:

•Which decomposes faster, a chicken that is raw or one that is burnt?

•Which decomposes faster, a “naked” chicken or one that is clothed?

•What is the effect of a decomposing chicken on the soil underneath?

•What is the succession of insects on a decomposing chicken on the ground?

•Does a chicken suspended in the air decompose at a different rate than one left on the ground?

•Does a chicken decompose faster if it is on dirt/grass versus being on cement?

•Do flies find decomposing flesh with smell or sight?

•How do decomposing chickens affect seeds planted above them?

•What is the succession of insets on a suspended chicken?

•What is the effect of temperature on maggots in a decomposing chicken?

I think we learned more than we thought we would.   We learned that the chickens on the grassy area decayed a lot faster that either those on the cement or the one hanging from the top of the cage.  We learned that it takes three to five minutes for flies to find a food source and they are attracted by something other than sight.  Our order of succession was measured by corpse invasion, so we found the ants came first, then the flies, then beetles of various types.  I was a little surprised we didn’t have a rodent problem but the head custodian said he chased off either a fox or coyote heading toward the cage over one weekend. 

The students learned a very valuable lesson about science.  Science isn’t pretty, it doesn’t always smell nice, it can be hot, dirty work and that someone has to do it.  To see the impact this project had on my class, visit YouTube and type in Enochs B.A.R.F. (making sure you use the periods) and view the video that one of my freshman students put together with photos and video images from our efforts.  This next year proves to be more exciting as I will be requiring a more quantitative approach to the research to elevate the information to something that could be used, perhaps, by local law enforcement.

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