Crash course in investigative techniques at STEM Fest

Students discover law enforcement tool kit with hands-on lessons

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter



STEM Fest events today

All ages

Clark College STEM Expo: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Clark College, Gaiser Hall, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver.

Testing: What’s in Your Water?:

9 to 11 a.m. at Gaiser Pond, 3000 N.E. 99th St., Vancouver. Registration recommended.

Sturgeon Festival: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Water Resources Education Center. Live reptile show at 10:30 a.m., fish dissection at noon, and Eartha the Ecological Clown at 1:30 p.m.

Family Wormshop: 10 a.m. to noon at Columbia Springs, 12208 S.E. Evergreen Highway, Vancouver. Registration recommended.

Day in the Life of a Police Officer: Open House noon to 4 p.m. at Clark County Sheriff’s precinct, 505 N.W. 179th St., Ridgefield.

Where does all the garbage go?: 1 to 2 p.m. at Waste Connections Transfer Station, 9411 N.E. 94th Ave., Vancouver. Registration recommended.

Middle and high school

Become a Conservation Scientist: 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m. at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 612 East Reserve St., Vancouver. Limited to 10 students each session, registration required.

Building Routes in the Transportation Industry: 1 to 4 p.m. at United Natural Foods Inc., 7909 S. Union Ridge Parkway, Ridgefield. Registration recommended.

High school

Building Science Tour: 10 to 11:30 a.m. at New Traditions Homes, 11815 N.E. 113th St. No. 110, Vancouver. Registration recommended.

Lab Simulations: 1 to 2 p.m. at Charter College, 17200 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver. Registration recommended.

Two students held opposite ends of a tape measure against the asphalt, pulling it tightly against the skid mark on the roadway.

Xavier Green, 18, yelled out the measurement: "52 feet 5 inches."

Next, 14-year-old Jackson Allen pulled a drag sled — a weight attached to a piece of a tire — against the road. A quick equation allows him to determine the coefficient of friction between the tire and the roadway: 0.81.

Plugging these two numbers into an equation, the group of about 12 students is able to figure out how fast the car had been going: 36 mph.

"I didn't think (law enforcement) had to do so much math," said 15-year-old Chase Perry. "I didn't think Newton's Law was that important … We're not just learning it just because, we're learning it to use in the future."

Perry was among a group of Evergreen High School students who visited the Washington State Patrol on Friday to learn the ins and outs of the job that goes along with wearing a badge and carrying a gun.

Along with delving into the physics of crash reconstruction, the group toured the agency's Vancouver office and learned about the many technologies that play a role in keeping the community safe. For example, troopers use lidar (laser) technology to catch speeders. Some patrol vehicles have roof-mounted cameras that capture and document vehicle information. They also saw the machines that administer breath tests to determine a person's blood alcohol content.

"It's neat to see what they do and why they do it," Perry said. "It's eye-opening."

The excursion was part of STEM Fest, a series of events held throughout the community Friday and today to promote education and careers in

science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council coordinated the event with 50 businesses and organizations.

The events are available to students and community members.

Teacher Brian Beecher said that when the STEM Fest was brought up, he thought of his street law class, an elective open to all grade levels. He said he was grateful to the state patrol for hosting the students for a day.

"If I tell students they can use math and science later in life, they don't understand or they don't listen," he said. "But when they see how they can apply it in a career, it's more important. It's also coming from a different person, so it has a different impact."

'Can't argue … science'

Detective Sgt. Rob Brusseau, who heads the local criminal investigation division for Washington State Patrol, said that he didn't know about the technologies and sciences used in the job until he entered the police academy.

Until that point, he said thought collision investigations were based on what people saw and how the cars landed.

In reality, he said, "Most collisions are traumatic for both parties, so eyewitnesses' statements are often skewed."

The crash reconstruction is important, he said, because the results could translate to criminal charges that could put someone in prison for years. In fatal crashes, he said, the information also has the potential to answer questions for grieving families.

When he's done with an investigation, he backs up the conclusion with physics. Very few collision cases go to trial, Brusseau said, because it's hard for defense attorneys to poke holes in the investigation.

"Even though we didn't see him stop at a stop sign, we can mathematically prove he didn't stop at a stop sign," he said. "You can't argue with science."

Emily Gillespie: 360-735-4522;;