Brian Bollone stood behind a lab table and prepared to teach science with the aid of a fireball.
Needless to say, he loves his work.
Funneling natural gas through a tub of soapy water, the Northview High School science teacher scooped out a globe of bubbles and set them over a flame. “Don’t try this at home – please don’t,” he pointedly told his students.
Good advice. A burst of fire suddenly enveloped his hand as if he were a wizard conjuring occult powers. “I’m glad I had water on my hand,” Bollone said, quickly extinguishing the flame. “Water is your friend.”
Talk about a hands-on lesson. It was a dramatic way to demonstrate the essential elements of fire – heat, fuel and oxygen – and how difficult gas-fed flame is to manage. It was one of several methods he used this day to illustrate the science behind solving crimes of arson, and one of the more exciting lessons in his popular course on criminalistics.
Also called forensic science — not to be confused with forensics, the art of debate — the class uses crime-solving techniques to teach scientific principles. The elective course fulfills a third-year science credit while giving students a taste of their favorite crime shows.
“The nice thing about forensics is it’s a catch-all,” Bollone said. “You get chemistry, you get physics, you get geology. It gives kids a chance to use their science in a lot of different facets.”
Criminalistics also gives students a chance to see scientific phenomena like the spectacular flame – which Bollone admits he enjoys as well.
“I love what I do. It’s fun.What other job lets you come in and burn stuff and still teach people things?”
Award Prize Helps Equip Science Labs
It may be fun but Bollone’s teaching is also effective, other educators say. He has given presentations on forensic science to science teachers associations around the country and to Kent ISD teachers. He also taught in England for a semester under the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program.
Bollone’s skills were recognized this spring by the National Science Teachers Association, which honored him with a 2014 Vernier Technology Award for a class study of animal decomposition. Cosponsored by Vernier Software & Technology, the award provided Bollone with a $1,000 cash prize and $3,000 in Vernier teaching products.
Bollone’s Vernier grant will help equip two science labs in the fall. Also funding the lab equipment is a grant from the Van Andel Institute to Northview chemistry and physics teacher Erin Combs, who has done summer research at the institute. The Northview Education Foundation and school board also have contributed funding for labs that will enable students to “do experiments like real scientists,” Bollone said. “You don’t want to send them off to college when they’ve never had a chance to design their own experiment.”
Bollone is considered a national expert in forensic science and designed a curriculum that has been sent to more than 200 schools, Northview officials say.
“He just has a pure passion for teaching science,” said Mark Thomas, Northview High School principal. “He works very hard to make his courses relevant.”
Not “CSI” but Plenty Interesting
Bollone’s passion isn’t confined to the school year. In late June he led a group of five students and one parent on an eco-tour of Costa Rica, studying the flora and fauna of its rain forests and volcanic areas. He also facilitates a summer science program at the Leighton Township Library.
He has taught at Northview since 2001, specializing in forensic science and advanced placement biology. He taught for seven years at Wayland High School prior to that, and wrote his master’s thesis at Grand Valley State University on applying science education through criminalistics.
He developed that specialty with colleagues at Wayland to fulfill a state mandate for a third year of science. It’s proven to be an immensely popular elective, capitalizing on students’ interest in TV series like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
“I like it because he will make it interesting. It makes it easier to understand,” said junior Lyz Compton, adding, “Our family watches a lot of crime shows.”
However, students learn solving crime can be more tedious than glamorous. They work on hypothetical crime kits trying to match evidence – bullet casings, for instance — to a weapon or suspect.
Sometimes there may be no match, just as in real life – though not necessarily on TV, Bollone noted.
“It’s fun for me when on occasion they say, ‘I was watching “CSI.” They’re doing that wrong. They got the results in like 30 seconds and it’s not even close to that.’”