From Fingerprints to DNA: You Just Can't Hide!

From Fingerprints to DNA: You Just Can't Hide!
Frances Cleveland: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Three to four class periods


There are many ways to convict a criminal of a crime, but one of the best is to have evidence that he or she was actually present at the scene!  Fingerprints, and later, DNA evidence have been used for over a hundred years to identify who was there (and, more recently, who wasn’t!).  Let’s look at the pros and cons of fingerprinting and DNA evidence.


The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the history of fingerprinting and DNA identification of individuals, and to give them an opportunity to assess the relative merits of each in terms of accuracy.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Access to print materials Inkpad and 3x5 cards Paper and pens or pencils, or word processor


1.  Begin the lesson by having each student fingerprint themselves.  Each student should do his or her index finger on one of the 3x5 cards.  Then, using the examples found on the Zoom website, below, find out what percent of the class members have whorls, loops, or arches in their fingerprints.
2.  Next, divide the class into four groups, assigning each group the task of researching the following:

  • Group 1:  The History of Fingerprinting
  • Group 2:  Problems with Fingerprinting
  • Group 3:  The Development of DNA Evidence
  • Group 4:  Problems with DNA Evidence  

3.  Each group should select a means of sharing its findings with the rest of the class.  This might be an oral report with handouts, a PowerPoint presentation, or some other means.  Set aside one day for such presentations.
4.  Conclude the lesson with a discussion of the class’s findings, and consideration of ethical issues involving our ability to identify people in these ways.  What are the implications of these technologies for privacy? For misuse? Is it the case that if one has nothing to hide, one shouldn’t object to having ones fingerprints or DNA on file somewhere?

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by inviting a police detective and a criminal defense attorney to speak with the class about the use of these technologies in the local community.

Sources & Resources:

Billings, Paul.  DNA on Trial: Genetic Identification & Criminal Justice.  Woodbury, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1992.
Cole, Simon A. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and  Criminal Identification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. 
Zoom Activities for Kids 

The History of Fingerprints 

Francis Galton 

Problems with Fingerprinting 

Discovering DNA Fingerprinting 

Basics of DNA Fingerprinting 

DNA Forensics 

A Brief Tour of DNA Fingerprinting

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.