Who did it? Campbell students play detective in forensics course

Buies Creek, N.C.-A child has been kidnapped. Inside a deteriorating clapboard house, students collect evidence for a possible murder investigation. Footprints are cast outside from rain-saturated red clay. The child’s mother, a single parent of a 10-year old girl, is frantic.

“We don’t know anything right now except this is a primary crime scene,” said Campbell University Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Cynthia Starita.

In this Introduction to Forensics course, Starita’s Criminal Justice students will process this staged scene for Drs. Mike Wells, John Bartlett and Timothy Metz’s science students to analyze. Besides combining four teaching modules-Criminal Justice, biological sciences and chemistry-what is unique about the course this year is the over-arching crime scenario, Wells explained.

“In past semesters, a weakness we identified in the Introductory to Forensics course was that it seemed disjointed, almost like four separate courses,” he said. “We have remedied that by having one crime scenario. The evidence collected in module one, Dr. Starita’s course, is passed along to the other modules for analysis. The case builds as the clues are analyzed.”

In Starita’s module, students perform crime scene analysis, photography, crime scene security and evidence collection. Wells’ chemistry students then analyze materials found at the crime scene. Metz and Bartlett’s biological science students perform DNA analysis, microscope analysis of pollens to identify indigenous plants at the crime scene and analysis of the corpse (a pig carcass that has been allowed to decompose in the woods).

“The overarching story that links the different parts of the course together makes the experience more realistic,” said Bobby Knowles, a junior chemistry major from Angier who wants to become a forensic scientist. “I think many people take the class because they are interested in the field because of television shows like ‘CSI.’ I think the course will provide valuable experience that I will use in my career.”

The scenario in all four modules this semester revolves around the missing child. Her mother returns home to find the child gone and four suspects are named. Through the collection and analysis of evidence in each of the modules, the students exonerate the innocent suspects and make a judgment on the murderer at the end of the course.

Although forensic science is not yet an undergraduate program at Campbell, Wells said the idea is “simmering.”

“As analysis techniques improve, highly skilled forensic scientists will be needed,” he said. “The right combination of Criminal Justice and science courses will make our graduates competitive.”

Photo Copy: Campbell students Mackenzie Wood and John Bales take footprint impressions for a crime scene investigation.