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Summer ‘Whodunit’ Sets Stage for New Course


August 15, 2010

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It is a scenic drive down a winding country highway to Augusta, Mo., where Maryville University owns 92 acres of land. With its fields, fish-filled creeks and densely wooded forests, the property is a perfect place for faculty and students to engage in biological and ecological research. This summer, however, it made the perfect environment for a fake “crime” scene.
The idea was developed by Geriann Brandt, assistant professor of criminal justice/criminology, Russell Blaine, PhD, assistant professor of biology and Mary Carol Parker, JD, assistant professor of legal studies. In order to create a course for students interested in learning the complexities behind forensic science and legal studies, the team developed a multi-disciplinary program that follows a murder case from crime scene to courtroom.

The three-week course, which will be offered next summer, is designed to give students hands-on experience collecting evidence from a crime scene, examining DNA in a lab and holding a trial in a mock court. This course is cross-listed with the criminal justice, biology and legal studies programs.

“We started with an introduction class that I currently teach and took it one step further,” Brandt said. “The course is called Advanced Criminal Investigation and is a multi-disciplinary look at approaching a crime scene from the criminal justice side to the biological side and then the legal side.”

This summer, Brandt, Blaine and Parker set up a trial run for the course. After leaving a deceased pig buried in a mock crime scene on the Augusta property for approximately three weeks, the group returned to collect biological and entomological samples. Tissue from the animal was preserved in small test tubes filled with ethyl alcohol; flies, beetles and maggots were captured in jars. The samples were then taken back to the research lab on campus and prepared for testing.

“Decomposed tissue and entomological samples can give a great many details about a crime scene,” Blaine said. “We can estimate time of death within about 24 hours by raising larvae specimens to adulthood. We then use tissue samples from the carcass to extract DNA and identify the body. This is going to give students a chance to work with some real forensic science and forensic entomology.”

Once they have documented all of the physical evidence, the professors will be able to determine what should be available for the students to collect and examine. This will further determine what evidence can be presented in a mock trial.

“We want students to understand what really happens with forensic science, not just what happens in a 60-minute crime show,” Parker said. “Students in all three disciplines need to understand how the evidence is collected, how it’s treated and how it’s presented in trial. The legal studies aspect of the course will develop their oral advocacy skills and show them how a trial really proceeds.”

Funded by a grant from Maryville’s Center for Teaching and Learning, the team expects to use their project this summer to not only fine tune their new course, but also expand their teaching skills. As the trial run moves forward, each professor is responsible for instructing the other two in their area of expertise.

“We are certainly getting out of our comfort zone here,” Parker said. “We’re learning procedures and terminology that we’re not familiar with. We didn’t think about teaching each other in our own discipline and I think we’ve really developed an appreciation for each other’s style. That has been the biggest eye-opening experience so far.”


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