The Forensics Lab

The 2013 Summer National Grid Camp for 9th – 10th graders

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In August of 2013, I participated as a chaperone and special project coordinator in the 2013 National Grid Summer Camp held on the University at Buffalo North Campus.  There were a total of about 65 academically advanced 9th – 10th graders from various Buffalo-area high schools.

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My duties as a chaperone included offering guided tours of the UB North Campus during student-parent orientation, staying overnight in the dorms with the students, herding them from one activity, facility or lecture to another and, most important of all, providing guidance and mentorship during some of  their projects.

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As an engineering student, I can tell you what classes I had in which buildings but I can’t always remember much about the guy they were named after.

As a special project coordinator, my job was to develop an interesting and interactive 2 – 3 hour lab that applied various STEM principles that both appealed to and challenged the academic skills of the participating 9th – 10th graders.  Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if I had some interest in the project, too!

Keeping this in mind, I developed a 6-part forensics lab in which students would investigate, collect, record and analyze evidence found in a mock crime scene.  The crime can be anything from a mock-murder or, in this case, a simple breaking-and-entering scenario.  However, Being that we had around 65 students, I divided the students into 6 smaller groups that each took on a different portion of the investigation.  I also created formats and guidelines by which 6 different investigative scenarios could be completed.

The Investigation

The investigation was held at the Buffalo Museum of Science and much of the equipment needed was graciously loaned through the museum’s Workshop and Learning Coordinator, Doug Borzynski.

Total project time was around 3 hours (not including crime scene setup), however, for a classroom project, a period of about 6 to 8 hours of classroom time – spread throughout a 4 to 5 day period – should be allotted.

Even though this wasn’t anything close to a real crime scene, it’s still important to emphasize professional conduct and protocol when gathering evidence and conducting the investigation.  It adds to the feel of the project and gives the students a sense of obligation and responsibility in the final outcome.

Professional Protocol:

  • Wear gloves, lab coats (if possible), and shoe covers before entering the crime scene.
  • When locating evidence, carefully remove the specimen and place it in an evidence bag (if possible).
  • After locating evidence, note all details in your EVIDENCE LOG.

Investigative Objectives/Scenarios

In this lab, I developed six (6) different investigative objectives that may be completed all at once with a large group or individually with smaller groups. Clicking on the title of each objective links to the accompanying worksheet as well as the EVIDENCE LOG.

Hair Analysis Objectives:

As a team, carefully and thoroughly search the assigned area for traces of hair left at the crime scene paying special attention to surfaces where hair might stick (e.g. carpets, fabric, etc.).  Gather 3 – 4 visually different types of hair evidence and diagram where the evidence was located and while observing professional protocol.

Soil Analysis Objectives

As a team, carefully and thoroughly search the assigned area for traces of dirt, soil, or other organic materials that may have been left at the crime scene.  Gather 3 – 4 visually different types of soil evidence while diagraming where the evidence was located and observing professional protocol.

Fingerprint Analysis Objectives

As a team, carefully and thoroughly search the assigned area for fingerprints left at the crime scene.  Some prints require dusting, others require lifting, and some prints may require both processes.  The best approach is to first locate all possible prints, then consult with fellow investigators as to how to approach each set of prints (dust, lift or both?).  Pay attention to common objects and surface areas that people touch most often (e.g. windowpanes, drinking glasses, etc.).  Gather about 3 – 4 different types of prints, note them in the EVIDENCE LOG and observe all professional protocol.

Use the Fingerprint Guide as a reference of the different patterns found on many fingerprints.

Fiber Analysis Objectives

As a team, carefully and thoroughly search the assigned area for fibers left at the crime scene.  Pay attention to common objects where fibers could snag or fall, thus keeping your eyes on the floor so as not to overlook evidence.  Continue gathering evidence until your team has anywhere from 3 – 4 different types of fibers.  For the lab portion of the investigation, perform a burn-test on these fibers and compare their burn behaviors to known specimens.  Makes notes in the EVIDENCE LOG and observe all professional protocol.

Glass/Plastic Analysis Objectives

As a team, search the assigned area for traces of glass or plastic left at the crime scene.  Look for containers, shards, or other materials sharing the visual characteristics of glass or plastic.  Gather 3 – 4 visually different types of evidence while diagraming where the evidence was located and observing professional protocol.

Document Forgery Analysis Objectives

Once your team has been established, break off into pairs and assign each pair to one of the other crimes scenes: Hair, Fiber, Glass/Plastic, Fingerprints, and Soil.  Each pair will cooperate with the investigating team present to uncover any traces of documentation left at the crime scene.  A criminal not wanting to leave a trail may have destroyed evidence so don’t expect any recovered documents to be intact.  Don’t forget to makes notes in the EVIDENCE LOG and observe all professional protocol.

Discussion

During the investigation, groups are prohibited from interacting with anyone outside of their team until they have finished their analysis.  Afterward, they are then allowed to interact with only ONE other investigative team that they feel may enhance their results.  For example, the Hair Analysis team may want to interview the Fiber Analysis team.  On the other hand, the Fingerprints team may want to interview the Document Forgery team to see if any fingerprints were left on the document evidence.  The choice is up to the investigative team and may either enhance or contradict their results.  Either way, this should lead to further analysis and discussion.

It is also important to emphasize that there are no wrong answers.  The point of this project is to understand the science behind crime scene investigations, encourage communication, and to stretch those logic-building muscles!

Conclusions

One by one, all investigative teams should be allowed to vocalize their results and conclusions as to whom the suspect could be.  It should be noted that a list of suspects and/or a mock police report may be provided at this time to allow the students to further conclude their findings.

Overall, this lab was a success and allowed the students to see a different side of science and engineering.  It forced them to use logical parts of their brain they never considered using in a crime scene scenario and gave them further options in their future STEM careers.

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