Local ‘murder’ educates Upward Bound students

The students are studying forensics in an effort to kindle enthusiasm for sciences and post-secondary education.
Robert Koch
The 18 Minneapolis high school sophomores in Bobbie Rush’s forensic science class discovered Monday why they have not seen one of their teaching assistants for several weeks.
Blood-spattered, with legs and left hand missing and a flower wreath wrapped around its eyes, the mannequin representing the woman’s body hung from a tree overlooking the river at Mississippi River Flats.
Rush, a General College science instructor, teaches the class as part of the University-hosted Upward Bound program, a federally funded college preparatory program helping high-potential children from low-income families become first-generation college students.
“It’s been a really good learning experience for them,” Rush said. “They’ve actually had to do a lot of problem solving.”
Monday’s crime scene analysis tested the students on what they had learned, bringing the five-week summer course to an end. But it also kindled within them an enthusiasm for science that might carry them through high school and into college.
Skills put to work
Rush’s students arrived at the river flats prepared to solve the murder after studying fingerprints, dental records, psychological profiles, crime scene plants and insects. They also visited a coroner’s office and heard experts speak on forensics.
Still, the exercise held several surprises. Awaiting the students at the riverbank were University Police and an ambulance crew.
“About 11:30 today we got a 9-1-1 call from a jogger that was going by here,” began officer Steve Gjerde. “She saw half a body hanging in the tree — scared her almost to death.”
Students Phillip Rhoden and Luis Rosario immediately went to work as assistant investigators. Four others photographed the scene as their classmates uncovered evidence. Still others carried clipboards, while labeling, logging and mapping the evidence that included egg shells, broken glass, plants and even maggots.
Soon, a short distance upstream, Rush’s students found the mannequin’s legs concealed beneath brush. They marked the evidence “Specimen 10,” took pictures and placed leaves and maggots into Ziploc bags.
“Good eye,” said Rush as team botanist Angie Davis spotted a hair near the mannequin’s foot.
Meanwhile, Joseph Ngaima used a stick to poke the riverside sand, searching for soft spots that might reveal buried evidence.
Afterward, Rush said things had gone well. The students found all the evidence.
Wisdom of an alumnus
On Tuesday, Rush’s students brought the evidence back to their Appleby Hall classroom and began the medical examination. When they submit their findings, their hands-on summer science class will be over.
Some of Rush’s students will take her genetics course as 11th graders. But she and others involved with Upward Bound and its federally funded parent organization, TRIO, hope the enthusiasm will last much longer. Torrey Adams, another teaching assistant, is proof it might.
The former Upward Bound student and TRIO alumnus of Marquette University, Adams now performs doctoral research for the University of Minnesota’s chemistry department.
“I wanted to give these young people a visual example of someone who’s done what they’re trying to do — someone they can look at and say, ‘This thing actually works. I need to stick around and see the benefits.'”
Adams added that today’s Upward Bound science classes combine chemistry, biology and physics and are much more hands-on than before.
Federal origins, local talent
Upward Bound is one of the three original TRIO programs created by the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 and funded through the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Students from families earning less than $22,000 stand less than a 4 percent chance of earning a baccalaureate degree by age 24, according to figures released by TRIO.
Eighty-five area high school students now participate in the University’s Upward Bound program, one of 772 such programs nationwide teaching low-income high school students literature, composition, mathematics and science on college campuses.
Aloida Zaragoza is the director of Upward Bound at the University. She credits Chris Goodwin of the Bell Museum and Upward Bound for developing the forensics class in the early 1990s and Rush for its current success.
“Bobbie does an excellent job. She’s brought it back to its original designs of the forensics curriculum,” Zaragoza said. “We have to find a mechanism whereby we can make it interesting and fun, and this is the way to do it.”

Robert Koch covers police and courts and welcomes comments at [email protected]