Science of Curiosity

Create a forensic autopsy activity for your high school students!

Forensic Autopsy Activity for High School

Looking to make a forensic autopsy activity happen in your classroom? You have come to the right place! Read on for details and ideas to make an unforgettable experience for your students!

My favorite subject to teach is Forensic Science. It is the perfect mix of applied Biology, Chemistry, Math, and the Yuck-Factor that students just love!

And no topic in Forensic Science has more ‘yuck’ than the study of dead bodies. Students look forward to this unit all year! They are never disappointed.

Reading, hearing, and seeing pictures about autopsies just doesn’t cut it. Students need hands-on experience to really learn and appreciate the work of Forensic Medical Examiners.

But murder victims are hard to come by for use in the classroom! So in my forensic science class, we use Rats. This post is all about how to turn a Rat into a murder victim!

Choosing Rats for the Classroom

Rats are great in a forensic science class for a few reasons. They are

  • inexpensive – relative to other possibilities, such as fetal pigs or cats
  • large enough to see their insides
  • anatomically very similar to humans
  • have complete, and fully formed skeletons – unlike fetal pigs which sometimes have a lot of cartilage

The best deal on preserved rats is from Flynn Scientific. These are great if you are just interested in the Autopsy of the rat.

But if you want to get the most out of the experience, go all the way and use your rats to teach forensic entomology too!

For that, you will need rats that insects are happy to feed on. Frozen feeder rats can be purchased at some pet stores, and even delivered straight from Amazon. For large frozen rats they are about the same price as the preserved ones.

Setting Up the Murder Victim

This forensic autopsy activity can be used to reinforce the concepts of:

  • Wound analysis – post vs. peri mortem
  • Livor mortis
  • Evidence of asphyxiation
  • Evidence of drowning
  • Time between death and the last meal
  • Wound ballistics
  • Practice weighing and examining internal organs

Here are the details for getting rats ready for your young Medical Examiners!

Entomological Evidence

If time allows (and your administration is okay with it!)  stage the ‘victims’ somewhere on campus. Either have your students collect the bodies themselves or you can take pictures of the crime scene and provide them to your MEs as they file their reports

If you are using the frozen feeder rats, they will attract flies after they thaw out.  If you are interested in using real entomological evidence for your students, this is a great way to do it. Depending on the weather, it may take just 24 hours to have maggots on your bodies.

Students will need to collect the largest maggots to measure, determine the developmental stage, and then use weather information to calculate the accumulated degree hours.

Tell students to just assume all of the maggots are the same species of green bottle fly, and to do their best to calculate post mortem interval. The goal is more to practice the concepts than to get a super accurate PMI! Maybe offer bonus points to the students who are the closest!

Be warned – decayed murder victims smell very bad! And are very, very gross. Some students may not be able to handle examining and dissecting a smelly body with maggots crawling around it. Be ready to give them a rat that has not sat outside, or an alternate assignment. 

Also, for the sake of your students and your colleagues, consider holding the dissection of decayed rat bodies outside the building.  You do not want your room (your whole hallway!) to smell like death.

Alternatively, you could set out one single rat and have any interested students collect and analyze the maggots, but allow all students to actually do the dissection on rats that have not started decaying!

Make the Insects Instead!

If you or your students can not stomach the smell (boy does it smell!) and handling of actual Crime Scene Insects, that is okay! You can still incorporate Entomological evidence.  Find plastic insects or make them! Making ‘insects’ can also give you more control over the outcome of the Post Mortem Interval calculation!

Squirts of hot glue are perfect for maggots, or use pipe cleaners cut to particular lengths to represent maggots at different stages of development. Have students measure their length and determine what stage they are in to figure out the Post Mortem Interval

Exterior Examination

Livor Mortis

Rub some blue food coloring or blue permanent marker on the areas you want to show livor mortis. Ask students what position the victim was laying in the hours following death.

Make each rat different! If you chose to stage the rat in the crime scene, some can show signs that they have been moved after death.

Create a forensic autopsy activity for your students!
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Rats may already be ‘wounded’ when they arrive to you depending on how they met their end. Use those wounds as part of the external examination.

Add red food coloring to the wounds you want to be ‘Perimortem’ (representing blood that came from the wound before death) and leave other wounds clean to demonstrate ‘Postmortem’ wounds. 

Consider making some wounds too – add defensive wounds on the hands., or stab wounds with a small scalpel, or other ‘weapon’.  Provide several possible murder weapons and have students determine which was used based on the shape of the wound.


Use a bee-bee gun (you will have to take it off campus first!) to give your rat bullet wounds. If you shoot at the right range and pump strength, the bullet will get lodged into the rat – great for your Medical Examiners to find!

If you don’t have access to a bee-bee gun, use a dissecting probe to punch a small hole in the rat, then take a small wad of aluminum foil (bullet) and push it through the hole.

For Gun Shot Residue, use a fine tip permanent black marker and make stippling to represent evidence of close range shots

Other Parts of the External Examination

Students can pry open the rat’s eyes,  but they will not see much. If you want specific evidence there (hemorrhaging or cloudiness) consider providing a photo (digital or printed out) of a eye and have students use this photo for the eye evidence.

Students will need to identify the gender of their victim, as well as measure the weight and height, and general characteristics of their body.

Any distinguishing marks? Students can record fur pattern, or if you want to add some fun, create a little tattoo on the rat using permanent marker.

Forensic Autopsy Report

Teach Forensic Science! Autopsy Report for Forensic Science classroom

As your young Medical Examiners work, have them fill out some type of question sheet or Autopsy Report. The one I use is available at Teachers Pay Teachers.

The Autopsy Report  covers both the external and internal examination – as well as Entomology, PMI, and a place where the Medical Examiner can put all the evidence together to come up with what may have happened at the crime scene.

This Autopsy Report is a great resource for teaching Autopsies even if your students are not going to dissect a rat. See the bottom of this post for some  less gruesome ways to use Autopsies Reports in your Forensic Science classroom!

The Internal Examination

Show your students how Medical Examiners open a victim, and guide them on what organs to remove and weigh. I have my students work through this Autopsy  interactive which allows them to ‘practice’ an internal examination before actually preforming it on the Rat.

Provide weigh scales for them to weigh their organs. Here is a database of different strains of rats, and how much each organ should weigh. Consider giving them access to this, or pulling an average from this data and providing it to them in a more simple format.

Inside the Rat

Give your rat signs of drowning by using a pipette to squirt dirty water into its mouth and lungs. Include algae or sand so it will be easy for your students to find and recognize when they open the lungs!

How to create a Forensic Autopsy activity for your students.

Consider creating  a simple toxicology report for your students. Tell them that a particular substance was found in the blood – mix it up for different student groups! 

Any broken bones? X-rays can be found online and printed or provided digitally. 

If you would rather keep it simple, just tell students that toxicology report came back negative for any substances, and there were no broken bones.

Stomach Contents

Most rats will have some food in their stomach, small or large intestine. This can be used to determine how long it had been since the ‘victim’s’ last meal before he was ‘murdered’!

Completing the Forensic Autopsy Activity

Plan several days for this activity. We are on a block schedule with 80 minutes. I give students the first day to complete the external examination of the rat. The second day the complete the internal examination.

You may choose to have your students return all of the organs and suture the rat closed again, just as in a real forensic autopsy. We do not take the time to do this, they each place the directed rats into small trash bags (‘body bags’) and dispose of the rat.

You may have students who are very uncomfortable with doing a dissection. Consider allowing them to partner with some more enthusiastic students. They can have the job of recording all the information on the the Autopsy Report and not have to even put gloves on!

Make this Forensic Autopsy Activity Your Own!

Do not feel like you have to include every idea! That could be overwhelming, especially your first time setting up the forensic autopsy activity. Instead just pick a few things and focus on those (stab wounds but not bullet wounds, skip the entomology, livor mortis but no fancy rat tattoos!).

If rats are not your thing, but you still want a hands-on forensic autopsy activity, check out this great idea for using Pickles as victims!

Happy teaching!

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