Body Farms and Other Novel Tools of Forensic Education

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One of the biggest debates in education is how to find a proper balance between theory and practical applications to help students master complex subjects. Focusing on theory can provide a strong foundation, while hands-on experiences provide lessons beyond what can be absorbed in books and lectures.

For example, when learning to drive, student drivers first spend time in the classroom or studying the rules and regulations at home. They also spend a significant portion of time behind the wheel putting all of their “book learning” into practice and gaining invaluable exposure to situations not covered in text.

The study of medicine takes a similar approach: prospective nurses and physicians must spend plenty of time in the classroom studying current practices and standards of care while also completing practical hours working directly with patients.

Faculty members who design the curriculum for forensic instruction programs also seek similar methods to educate students. Because these programs often adhere to national or international standards, students must learn the theory, history, and laws of forensic science. To some, this material may just be dry statistics or dull methodologies, but in the right hands, it can be interesting and inspiring. What’s more, instructors often have considerable experience, passions, and unique teaching methods that can add a personal touch to the procedural materials.

At the same time, students get the opportunity to put these skills into practice. Forensics labs and fieldwork can be decidedly more interesting than spending time in a classroom. The sights, sounds, even smells of fieldwork can help students decide which discipline or specialty field is particularly interesting to them and which is not.

This approach can be crucial in the criminal forensics field when there is often high exposure to items that can make some people squeamish or nauseated, such as blood, bodily fluids, and bodies in various states of decomposition. Someone may enjoy collecting fingerprints but not measuring blood spatters, and others may find that they are good at finding evidence but do not like working directly with older remains.

Visiting an active crime scene and following proper protocol can be more effective than reading about it. What’s more, experiential learning is invaluable when job hunting. Candidates who excelled in their courses as well as in the field can prove attractive to employers.

Those seeking useful forensic programs that go beyond the textbook to impart knowledge, along with useful tools and teaching aids may consider some of the below programs.

The Crime Scene House

Students in the bachelor of forensic program at the University of Toronto Mississauga can directly put to use what they learn in chemistry, investigation, and other law enforcement and science courses at the Crime Scene House. This two-story house is used to provide hands-on simulations of crime scenes.

The faculty creates a fictitious story about a missing professor and students have to figure out how the victim got there and what happened to them, which can include finding and analyzing blood, dusting and matching fingerprints, deducing that a struggle has occurred, discovering a gun, and other sorts of scenarios that test their scientific knowledge and deductive reasoning. The simulations vary so that every exercise is different. Sometimes there are even items outside, such as evidence buried in the dirt.

Program simulation is a great way to get students out of the classroom and let them use their acquired skills all at once. The practical knowledge gained also can be useful for those seeking futures in law enforcement fields.

Along with the coursework available for students, the program also offers a popular week-long forensic day camp for children between the ages of 9 and 13. Students learn about modern forensic techniques and how they are used, including investigations and basic ballistics. The program is also designed to share realistic info about the modern world of forensics especially for those who only know the material from television.

The Dollhouses of Death

Are detailed miniature figures of grisly murder scenes considered art or education? Why not both? That’s the value of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death made by Frances Glessner Lee in the 1940s. The tiny macabre dioramas show a variety of death and crime scenes, including bloody corpses, bullet holes in the walls, and ransacked rooms.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, which has put them on display, Lee was the first female police captain in the U.S. She also founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University and is considered the “mother of forensic science.”

Her interest in teaching criminology was sometimes hindered by the fact that that were not many effective training methods besides real-life experience, which often led to errors. For this reason, she created a variety of vignettes from actual cases to show not only homicides but also suicides and accidental death, along with evidence to identify the differences between the three.

Lee felt that it was important for investigators to always have an open mind and focus on finding the truth, whether it implicates or clears suspects. This also means not giving in to stereotypes or having a certain suspect in mind. She designed these precise miniatures with high attention to detail, including tiny cigarettes with actual tobacco, legible letters, and windows that lock and unlock.

When not on display, Lee’s creations are used for training seminars at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.

The Body Farm

Football gets lots of headlines in Tennessee, but so has the community’s growing high-tech and entrepreneurial offerings as of late, one of which is particularly exciting to forensic science students and experts. The Anthropology Research Facility, also known as the Body Farm, at the University of Tennessee Knoxville is a 2-acre plot of land where students can study human decomposition using cutting-edge tools technology.

The school’s forensic anthropology program created the Body Farm in 1987. At the time, no research facility of this kind existed. Today, it is one of seven similar training programs in the country. The cadavers are provided by people who donate their bodies for scientific research.

The concept is simple but useful: cadavers are stored and studied at the farm, which provides students and even professional investigators interesting and useful information about the decomposition process of a body. Variables can include weather, what type of material they’re buried in, and different microbes or insect life in the soil.

The location of the Body Farm is secure and not open to the public, but students can access the farm for several courses, including degree and certificate programs and even short summer courses that offer supplementary education for students in other majors or professions.

In addition to the hands-on work at the farm, the school provides researchers with access to more than 1,700 complete donated skeletons and a databank of about 5,000 forensic cases around the world. Faculty and researchers are also available to consult on criminal cases worldwide as well.

Again, the farm is not open to the public, but educational tours are provided for students, community groups, and fellow researchers. Personnel also regularly visit grade schools and community organizations to promote science.

CSI Camp

Staff from the International Forensic Research Institute and the National Forensic Science Technology Center teamed up to present an annual week-long forensics program at FIU’s Modesto Maidique campus called CSI Camp.

While some camps, like the one at the University of Toronto, are intended to provide teens and tweens with a simple overview of science and mystery-solving, CSI Camp is intended for advanced middle school to college students who want to know more about forensic science, as well as law enforcement or scientific professionals who are interested in a quick overview of the topic without having to leave work to study.

At the camp, faculty members and forensics experts present information about crime scene investigation, fingerprint identification, forensic entomology, and courtroom procedure. Many of the camp’s faculty also bring extensive experience from some of the most well-known organizations in the industry, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the California Department of Justice’s DNA Laboratory.

Even though the subject matter can be intense, the program still makes sure to emphasize that it’s camp. Therefore it can be a fun and memorable summer activity. Although there aren’t tents or cabins as campers are responsible for their lodging in town, everyone gets a T-shirt and a duffel bag with a CSI toolkit. In addition to lectures, campers go on fieldtrips to different locations, including labs and companies near the campus.

FBI Internships

Career counselors and faculty often recommend internships as a useful part of a degree and a good way to build contacts for future employment. Internships vary according to the needs and structure of an employer but can provide interns with an overview of how organizations work. They can also function as a trial period for potential employees.

The FBI has several internship opportunities available to undergraduate or graduate students currently in college or for scientists already in the workforce. These are often related to different aspects of investigations, including research and analysis.

Students pursuing forensic and criminalist-oriented fields can be considered for internships at the main headquarters in Washington, D.C. These programs are usually about ten weeks, although visiting scientist programs can last more than a year.

The computer and digital forensics internship is in particularly high-demand. It involves investigating cyber attacks and designing defenses against breaches. The FBI has several internship and positions programs available in D.C. or at the various regional computer forensic laboratories.

Due to the sensitive nature of the FBI, prospective interns must pass various background checks. They must also have a solid academic background as the programs are exceptionally competitive: one year, 400 interns were selected out of more than 9,000 applicants. That’s a 4 percent acceptance rate—lower than Harvard University.

Bug Cards

Visual aids are particularly useful in getting students to learn and retain information. Various charts, dioramas, and multimedia information can help present information to students seeking more info about particular subjects. For example, Carolina Biological Supply has created a 52-card deck of insects commonly observed on, in, or near human remains during the decomposition process.

Students can use this forensic entomology deck as a field guide to identify certain insects or related animals when they are asked to visit crime scenes. It also can be a useful resource in a lab. Knowing more about the presence and types of bugs can help determine a cause of death, especially if a body has been buried for years.

The deck also includes information on ways to safely preserve any insects found around remains. Because testing and any accompanying evidence collection can take weeks or even months, it’s important to make sure these insects are properly labeled and stored.

Please note that the same supplier also includes other useful visual tools such as fingerprint identification charts.

Other Resources

One of the challenges for forensic professors who do not want to teach out of the book all the time is finding other ways to make material relevant. Some come up with training modules and case studies that they make available to other instructors, forensic organizations, and students.

For example, Portuguese researchers came with a case study called “The Case of the Crime at the Cinema,” where they created a scenario of a mass shooting at the movie theater. In the experiential case study, students identify and analyze various items found at the scene, such as blood, lipstick, and fibers. Like any crime scene, some material may be related to the case, some may not, but the only way to know is to analyze it all.

This particular teaching module is designed to not be a “one size fits all” solution, and students can take several paths to evidence collection and reaching a conclusion. Beyond building basic investigatory skills, this case can also require the use of chemistry skills and tools.