Forensic biology class teaches students how real-life crime scene investigation compares to television
Someone walking down the second floor of the Fondren Science Building on a recent Thursday might have been a bit alarmed when they passed by Room 212. The room was closed off with a yellow ribbon that said “CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS” and inside were 16 people in white garb busy collecting evidence.
Fortunately, however, the crime scene was not real. The exercise was part of a popular new class called Forensic Biology that is offered in the summer to non-science majors.
The class was developed by Linda Southwick, an assistant professor and biology laboratory manager who admits to a lifelong fascination with forensics. The recent popularity of crime scene shows such as “CSI,” “Bones” and “NCIS” rekindled that interest.
Southwick spent a year developing the class with the help of a Cullen Faculty Development grant. It was offered for the first time last summer and was immediately a hit with students. This May, more students wanted to take the class than Southwick could accommodate.
“I’m terrified of science, but students who took this class before said they really liked it,” says Molly Rice, a senior theatre major who took the class this summer. “This is an interesting approach to science that is much less intimidating.”
While other universities offer such courses for students who are majoring in forensics, there are only a few other schools that offer such a course for non-majors. Southwick presented a poster about her class last fall at a meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers.
The crime scene investigation is the culmination of the class. In preparation for it, students spend the first three weeks of the term learning how to collect evidence and how to examine teeth, hair, shoe prints and fingerprints for clues. They also learn about ballistics and handwriting analysis.
Southwick says that while much of what is shown on television crime scene shows is real, not all of it is. Part of her class is devoted to comparing real-life forensics to television shows.
“On television, they show the crime scene investigators collecting things quickly and getting results quickly,” Southwick says. “In real life, it isn’t that fast.”
For example, she says, it takes a minimum of two or three days to get the results of DNA tests. DNA testing also is not as common as television viewers are led to believe. Real-life investigators use less expensive methods such as blood typing as much as possible.
“Some of my students have told me their friends don’t like to watch CSI with them any more because they tell them things that aren’t real.” Southwick says.
Southwick also devotes part of the class to a discussion of legal issues. “Legal issues are very important because you may be called to testify in a case,” she says. “You have to document everything carefully.”
The day of the crime scene investigation, the students divide up into three teams and don masks, gloves, aprons and paper booties. They are given a plastic tackle box containing everything they need to document and collect evidence. A single sheet of paper gives them basic information about their crime scene.
The students spend several hours putting evidence in envelopes and labeling them. Then it is off to the lab to analyze what they have found.
In the next class, the students are given interviews with suspects. They then have to combine the interviews with their evidence and write up a report on the case, which is presented to all their classmates.
All three of the groups in this summer’s class were able to correctly “solve” their crime scenes. Two scenarios involved situations in which the students had to determine whether a death was a murder or a suicide. The third scenario was an obvious murder, but the students had to figure out who did it. They were able to do this by using what they had learned about gun shot residue, handwriting analysis, blood spatter and fingerprint analysis.
Southwick says the class is only offered in the summer because it requires moving all the desks in a much-used classroom for several days in order to set up the imaginary crime scenes. When asked how she gets the ideas for her crime scenes, Southwick says there are some Web sites for teachers that offer just such ideas.
“I’m not very good at making up crime scenarios,” she says.