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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Middle School Students Probe Faux Crime Scene on UM Campus

April 9, 2015  |  By EDWIN SMITH

forensicchemistryomsprogramA dead body, blood spatter, guns, bullets and DNA samples – all fake – offered gifted Oxford Middle School students a unique opportunity to test their forensic skills Wednesday (April 8) at the University of Mississippi.

About 80 seventh- and eighth-graders in the OMS Launch program visited the campus as part of a two-week unit on forensics they’re studying.

Led by Murrell Godfrey, UM forensic chemistry program director, and his students, the group spent the morning honing their detective skills while examining the “evidence” throughout select classrooms and labs in Coulter Hall. Graduate and undergraduate forensic chemistry students demonstrated the proper procedures for analyzing the staged evidence recovered from the mock crime scene.

“Our mock crime scene contained murdered dummies with fake blood for DNA and toxicology analysis,” said Godfrey, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “We also had real spent bullets and pretend guns for ballistics analysis, along with fingerprints, hairs and fibers for trace analysis.”

UM students emphasized the importance of preventing contamination, as well as keeping the chain of custody intact from the time evidence is collected at the crime scene through the analysis process.

Divided into five smaller groups, the OMS students rotated through the different forensic stations. At each station, they analyzed their samples and collected data.

“Fake blood was collected and analyzed to develop a DNA profile and toxicological report,” Godfrey said. “Finger prints were lifted from the gun to determine who touched the gun. Bullets were analyzed with a comparison microscope to determine what gun fired the bullets found at crime scene.”

The event culminated with a moot court (mock trial) where the students defended their analyses as expert witnesses.

“This has been in the planning stages since January,” said Brenteria Travis, a UM computer and information science doctoral student from Canton and co-coordinator of the event with Godfrey. A Mississippi Space Grant Consortium fellow, Travis is required to volunteer in a local K-12 school program. She has been working closely with OMS Launch teacher Pat Kincade on a weekly basis for the past two years.

“This is the second time we’ve coordinated a visit day for her students,” Travis said. “The first involved both forensic chemistry and computer science in 2013. Our goal is always to encourage these gifted young minds to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors once they enter college.”

Kincade prepared her students for the UM field trip by creating a similar mock crime scene in her classroom. While having no advanced forensic equipment, she managed to stage a setting similar to those depicted on popular television shows and film.

“These are our most gifted students,” Kincade said. “Our challenge is to further develop their process skills, such as problem-solving, deductive reasoning and debating.”

Apparently, her smaller scale classroom scene proved a sufficient preliminary to the main event.

“They all are very attentive and inquisitive,” Travis said. “We were surprised by their depth and the types of questions they asked.”

Several OMS students said they learned a great deal through their experience.

“This was almost like real life,” said Lucy Chinichu, an eighth-grader. “Watching them take so much DNA evidence and narrow it down to one person is fascinating and something I think I might like to do as a job one day.”

Seventh-grader Mary Cook agreed.

“I think the DNA testing was very cool,” Cook said. “This looks like it would be very interesting to do on a daily basis.”

“It’s definitely more than using goggles and gloves,” said Donald Rogers, another eighth-grade student. “I learned that while shows like ‘CSI’ show only one barrier around a crime scene, there are actually two barriers. I also discovered it actually takes much longer to process evidence and solve a case in real life than it does on television.”

A UM faculty member discussed cyber security and digital forensics in Kincade’s classroom Thursday. The forensics unit began Monday (April 6) and runs through next Friday (April 17).

By allowing the students to visit the department and experiment with the equipment, UM faculty members said they hope to pique their interests in forensic chemistry and possibly recruit them to the university after high school.

“Many of my students’ parents teach at the university,” Kincade said. “I’m an Ole Miss graduate and so are our two daughters. We’re red-and-blue all the way.”