Interview with Nancy Kochis, Forensic Science Educator and Graduate of UF’s Online Forensic Science Master’s Degree Program
Nancy Kochis is a 2010 graduate of UF’s online forensic science master’s degree program. By developing and teaching a forensic science course at the high school honors level, Kochis was able to join her passions for forensic science and education. When Kochis began teaching her first forensic science course in 2009, it was the only course of its kind offered at LaSalle-Peru High School in LaSalle, Illinois. Today, she teaches three forensic science honors courses there. In this Investigator, we asked Kochis about what inspired her to teach, how her students are gaining an appreciation for forensic science, the next generation of women in STEM fields and her advice for anyone interested in UF’s online master’s degree program.
Please tell us what inspired you to teach. How did you start your Forensic Science classes and how did you develop an interest in Forensic Science?
I have always had a desire to teach ever since I was a little girl. I have been teaching high school since 2001 and have wanted to start a forensic science class ever since. I wanted to start a science class that would appeal to seniors and increase the enrollment of seniors in the science department at the same time. I became interested in forensics ever since I was a little girl watching many detective shows with my father in the 1970’s. While I was finishing my master’s in forensic science through the University of Florida, I wrote a proposal to the school to start this class. It has since grown to three full-sized classes and has been designated as Honors Forensic Science.
From retired CSI agents to drug officers, you’ve had many guest speakers featured in your classes. What is your process for choosing these guest speakers?
I have had many experts come to speak to my students because I want them to see that what they are learning in the classroom is being applied by the experts in the real world. I have had a retired FBI agent; DEA and ATF agents; DNA, Impression and Drug analysts from the Joliet State Police Crime Lab, a drug officer and many police officers; a criminal justice professor from Eureka College; a retired CSI that worked on the John Wayne Gacy case; a detective/sketch artist from Chicago; and a coroner and pathologist.
One of the biggest sources that I utilize is the internet. I search for area forensic experts in many fields and speak to them on the phone personally. Sometimes my guest speakers have other contacts that are willing to speak to the students. Some of the experts I meet at professional conferences through the IAI or AAFS. Some guest speakers contact me. The professor from Eureka College contacted me several years ago about speaking to my students about his criminal justice program. We also are invited every year to the college to visit his crime labs (a retired sorority house converted into several crime scenes). My students are allowed to go through the various crime scenes to process them.
Do you feel that the experience of hearing stories from your guest speakers inspires your students to learn more about Forensic Science?
Even though most of the students that take my class are not interested in pursuing a career in the legal field, they learn so much from the guest speakers. I do have several students every year that will go to college to pursue a degree in criminal justice, forensic science or the law.
A current student told me that she recently job shadowed the Impression expert, Nicole Fundell, from the State Police Crime Lab in Joliet. She was [so] interested in her presentation to the class last semester that she contacted her for a visit. She told me that it just reinforced her desire to go into the field even more.
A former student of mine is the acting deputy coroner in our county while she is finishing her course work. She has agreed to help my classes with their end of the year crime scene project this year. This project involves area professionals helping to make a crime scene for the students to process and analyze evidence. This year’s theme is death of the prom queen, where she can process the body as deputy coroner.
Do you know of any students that were in your classes that went on to study Forensic Science in college?
I have been in contact with several students that have graduated or are currently enrolled in various legal fields. I have several that are currently police officers, working for the state police or are getting a graduate degree in their area. One former student who is now a police officer recently visited me at school. He wanted to thank me for starting my forensic science class. He told me that he uses what he learned in my class every day he is on duty. That was very heartwarming for me.
What do you think can be done in public schools to inspire the next generation (especially women) to pursue future studies and a career in a STEM field like forensic science?
I really believe that public schools should offer more science classes, especially forensic science, even if it is a semester class. I have three full-sized and one year-long forensic science classes. The majority of [my] students are female. This class covers a wide range of topics such as fingerprints, drugs and alcohol, blood and serology, hairs, [and] fibers to name a few. This class is also cross-curricular because I have many labs that cover social sciences, anatomy, entomology, mathematics and other related fields. So, if they are not going into forensics, they may enter other health-related fields in college.
I also started a $500.00 scholarship for any student taking my class that goes into the legal field. I really believe that the scholarship is an added incentive to go on to college. I think that if more schools had this added incentive it could increase enrollment in the class and thus spark that interest in the field.
I understand that you’ve had a few labs published on The Forensic Teacher Magazine’s website. Have other teachers reached out to you for help with starting a Forensic Science class, or with a general lesson plan idea?
I have had three of my labs published in the online magazine. I got inspired to publish my labs while reading about others. I have had several teachers from across the US contact me about using my lab in their classroom. One teacher contacted me a few years ago to tell me he added another component to the Locard Exchange Lab. He added a selfie as part of their lab. In this lab I give the students a T-shirt or pair of socks and an evidence bag. They are to wear their item on one day over the weekend and come into contact with as many objects as they can (hoping to get as much evidence from contact as they can). The selfie component was his way of knowing that the students were wearing their shirts or socks. I added the selfie after his contact with me and its works great. After all, what student does not like selfies?
What advice do you have for someone interested in taking University of Florida’s online master’s degree in forensic science?
I definitely advise high school teachers, especially, to take the online master’s degree from the University of Florida. This degree has given me the confidence to teach the subject to my students. Since then I went on through the college to receive a Death Investigation Certificate. I take many classes through various forensic organizations and online. I try to keep abreast of up-to-date topics in the field so that I can bring [them] to my students. I belong to the IAI and the Global Society of Forensic Sciences. I also occasionally attend conferences through the AAFS.
Working full-time while completing online graduate coursework can present a challenge for many online students. Do you have any time management insights that you can share?
This online program was challenging for me because I not only taught full-time at the high school, but I taught at the junior college at night during this time. I also have three grandchildren that I am very involved with, I belong to several committees at school and I am the sophomore class advisor. However, I was very determined to do well in my courses. I also had great support from my husband. He knew that I was determined to get a degree in forensic science. Having the passion for learning and the forensic sciences also helped me succeed.