While the sight and smell of a maggot-infested piece of carcass ripening in the sun might drive most people away, it’s all part of a day’s lesson for public safety students at Rockdale Career Academy.
Public Safety Instructor Ben McCumber’s third year students have been observing a real-life outdoor body lab using a deer haunch in a secured cage to drive home classroom forensics lessons. The students are learning about the wealth of information that can be collected from a decomposing body and its bug life.
“You can talk about entomology, you can talk about decomposition. But they actually get to see it and smell it – and touch it if they want,” said McCumber. “We're doing things that in many places are on a college level.”
Senior Kree Clark explained that investigators can tell how long a body has been outside and even detect if there were drugs or poisons in the victim by testing insects collected on the body.
Students that came out to observe ran the gamut from excited to wary – or both.
About half the class crowded around the cage at the back of RCA’s property, near the woods, as McCumber turned over the leg to uncover beetles and clusters of freshly laid fly eggs. He lifted a flap to show tiny maggots retreating from the light. He explained that the lifecycle of flies and beetles happens rapidly, within a 12-hour period, so many students would only see big jumps in the decomposition process.
The other half of the class hung back, well out of smelling range of the fishy two-day-old haunch.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no. I don't want to do that,’” said senior Macy Gray. She explained she had been traumatized by maggots as a child. “I do like working in forensics, but I wouldn't do this,” she said. “I see myself as being more of a teacher.”
On the opposite end, senior Chike Haynes displayed maggots that had been plucked off and placed in alcohol for observation.
“I like the laboratory field of forensics,” he said later. “The smell doesn't really bother me… I was hoping I'd be able to do something like this. I also do anatomy and dissecting.”
McCumber, who was inspired by an article in Evidence Technology Magazine describing a similar project, initially had hoped to have a whole carcass but was unable to secure one in time for the school year.
“They get the full effect of decomposition, the skin and internal organs and bloating” with a whole animal body, said McCumber. In real life, a body might also be affected by vultures and coyotes. “It's a dry run, and we'll keep adding to it as we go along.”
Of the students’ reaction, he said it’s been better than expected. “Nobody threw up; I'll take that as a positive,” he said. “I expected a few more to be grossed out. It's been good, the anticipation.”
For more information on the body lab and class, contact McCumber at firstname.lastname@example.org