There’s a lot more to forensic crime scene investigation than what is depicted on television and movies.
Ask some of the high school students participating in a weeklong camp hosted by Penn State’s forensic science department. There’s a lot of paperwork, and investigators have to wear protective equipment, which is especially hot on a humid day like Monday, and that was just the first day of the program.
“We’re really teaching them the chemistry behind DNA typing, how you do that, how you get that profile,” said Jeni Smith, a forensic science professor at the university and co-instructor with the camp.
The program, called “Forensic DNA: Next Generation Detectives,” teaches a more complete picture of the field than that offered on the TV show “CSI.” Instructors try to keep it as realistic as possible, Smith said. On Monday, participants spent time at a “crime scene” on campus to collect DNA evidence from items placed throughout rooms in the building, like cigarette butts, bottles, cups and even blood stains, carefully taking notes and bagging evidence in much the same way as their real-life counterparts.
The realism even extended to their clothing: students donned protective gear, like white suits, gloves and coverings over their shoes like ones investigators wear to protect themselves and also evidence from being tainted, Smith said.
The rest of the week will be spent in a laboratory, Smith said. Students will learn that patience is also important in the field. Smith said that while the TV shows depict results in minutes, the process actually takes days or weeks. The program will close on Friday, when they will show off their findings at a mock admissibility hearing at the Katz Law Building, Smith said.
A few high school students from out of state participated in the forensics camp, while others came from around the state. Locals, like Jordan Terrizzi and Kyra Haines, both 14 and of State College, took part for different reasons. Terrizzi is not considering a career in forensics but has an interest in science and thinks forensics are cool.
Haines has an interest in the field because a family friend is a police officer and she reads crime novels. She is considering a career as a forensics investigator, perhaps as an FBI agent.
Both mentioned the meticulous note-taking and care required when bagging evidence, plus the hot gear, as things they weren’t expecting as parts of the job.
“It’s a lot more difficult than I thought,” Haines said.
The science department at the university hosts several weeklong summer camps like the forensics one, said Mike Zeman, director of outreach and science engagement and coordinator of the camps. Programs are available for students from second through 12th grades, and camps are offered in engineering and other sciences.
It’s a win for everyone, he said, as the students get a taste of a field they might be considering, professors can work with the next generation of scientists and holding the camps is one way the program can work to get grants from the National Science Foundation.
For instructors like Smith, working with high school students is especially rewarding because it plants the seed for the future of her profession.
Smith worked with the FBI and CIA in a 23-year career as a forensics investigator before retiring and returning to her alma mater to teach. It’s the second year she’s been involved in the camp, and Smith said she likes that it provides access to forensic science in a realistic manner. It’s important for young people to understand what a job is really like, especially before making a big commitment and investment, like college, she said.
The camp offers a realistic glimpse while showing that a career in the field is possible with an interest and hard work, she said.
“The future of forensic science lies in getting young people interested and then getting them trained,” Smith said.