Getting insects to nab criminals

A CLASS of Grade 6 pupils, dressed in their blazers and ties, shuffle under a barrier of yellow crime scene tape and form an arc around a recently discovered corpse...

The forensic entomologist, Elaine Allerman, slips on her gloves and starts her painstaking, head-to-toe examination of the body, looking for pieces of evidence that prove vital for prosecutors later on.

Allerman, a masters student at the University of Free State, explains that forensic entomology is the use of insects in matters of the law.

A suspect's movements can be identified by analysing the insects found on certain objects, perhaps car windshields or bumpers, she says.

A fresh larvae or a squashed beetle leg on a shoe could create a situation where the suspect is unable to explain their actions.

Maggots too could give an indication of when the killing took place.

The pupils fall silent as Allerman squirts a substance called lumo gel over a suspected bloodstain on the body.

The gel, she says, will show any dried body fluids that might belong to another person.

"It's like watching CSI Miami," one of the pupils comments.

"It's like that," Allerman says.

The body, however, is only a dummy and the crime scene is just one of many exhibits at Scifest, being held in Grahamstown as a way of encouraging young pupils to take up careers in maths and science.

"We've had an unbelievable response," Allerman says, lifting up a wad of forms filled out by schoolchildren who want to find out more about the profession.

"There are only five forensic entomologists in South Africa. There is a desperate shortage and it's an important profession.

"We have to encourage youngsters to take an interest in the profession."

Whether it's crime scenes, games of soccer being played by robots, or a lecture on the construction of the bloodhound vehicle that aims to smash the land speed record by reaching 1609km/h in Northern Cape in 2013, the 15-year-old festival is striving to do what many teachers have failed at for decades - to make maths and science fun.