DNA Exonerations

By flipping the scenario of a traditional CSI lab to center around DNA exonerations, students can learn about the inequities that are present in the criminal justice system, and how DNA technology and science can be used in the service of social justice. Read more in our NSTA Science Teacher article from July/August 2022!
Person of color behind bars


This lesson sequence centers around a traditional forensics lab, but instead of students using DNA evidence to determine who committed a crime, they examine the innocence of someone who was wrongfully convicted. Students begin the lesson sequence by looking at real data about the criminal justice system to generate questions about the inequities they see around race and mass incarceration. These questions lead students to the case studies of real exonerees that they use to look into the inequities around wrongful convictions. Students work together to analyze the post-conviction DNA samples for their case studies and use Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) to help determine the innocence of the subject of their case study. Afterwards, students use their new knowledge to advocate for criminal justice reform strategies of their choosing through Student Action Projects. 


7 Lesson plans
Remote or in classroom

"I think this unit is very beneficial, not only from a science standpoint but also from a justice standpoint. This unit will help teach you and your students about the flaws of the criminal justice system, and the importance of science in everyday lives."

Nicholas I, student

Step 1: Complete Short Survey

Complete the short survey to support our grant-funded lessons.


Step 2: Download Unit Overview Materials

Unit Overview

An overview of the unit with lesson summaries, unit calendar/timeline, and more information for the teacher before teaching this unit. 



Unit Preface

Information on our approach to science teaching & learning, background reading on mass incarceration and worngful conviction for teachers, and credits & acknowledgments. 


Teacher Pre-modules

A set of interactive modules from SEP's Race, Racism, and Genetics unit. These pre-modules cover topics that teachers should be comfortable with before starting this unit as well as the Race, Racism, and Genetics unit. These pre-modules are set up for teachers to reflect on their own understanding of race, racism, and biological essentialism and work on developing their critical consciousness before teaching the materials to students.


Step 3: Download Lessons

Data Deep Dive

Explore real data and develop claims based on evidence supported by reasoning to explore disparities in the US criminal justice system. 

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Case Studies

Read through and get to know the details of each case study to explore how post-conviction DNA testing could help people already imprisoned. 

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Intro to STRs

Learn about Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) and how they are used in forensics to identify individuals.

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DNA Evidence Lab

Analyze post-conviction DNA samples for each case study and make recommendations to the court based on the evidence obtained. 

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Presumption of Guilt

Connect the case studies and lab to systemic problems present in the world through a group discussion about a reading on the presumption of guilt that is placed on Black men by the US criminal justice system.

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Implicit Bias and Structural Racism

Explore how implicit biases are shaped and created by systemic racism to cause the inequities seen today.

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Student Action Plan

Take action to intervene on the systemic problems that plague the US criminal justice system to disrupt the racist practices that harm everyone. 

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SEP Teachers-Only Quick Links

These links are for SEP teachers who are part of the kit loan program. To become a part of the kit loan program you must complete the 3 week professional development program.