CSI Symposium, forensic science class
expand possibilities for CJ students © Feb. 12, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Criminal Justice students are learning how a familiarity with science can make them better investigators.

©iStockphoto.com/dra_schwartzCriminal Justice students are learning how a familiarity with science can make them better investigators.

An effective police officer needs to know more than college criminal-justice classes can provide.

This was the message of New York State Police Investigator Robert Appleton to a full auditorium at Norwich University’s third-annual CSI Symposium. Law enforcement professionals need a working familiarity with chemistry, electronic technology, computer science and mathematics, he said. Convictions result from a cross section of knowledge and people.

“Criminal justice isn’t a small hole that you can look through and judge the world,” said Appleton at the January 2010 event, which brought together some of the country’s top experts on skills that come into play at a crime scene. “You don’t have to know everything, but you have to know where to go.”

Appleton, a 1992 Norwich graduate and member of its Board of Fellows, was aiming his comments at students majoring in Criminal Justice [CJ], the largest undergraduate degree program at the country’s oldest private military college. It’s a message he has worked hard to bring to light. In addition to founding the symposium with the help of Prof. Robin Adler, Appleton acted as consultant for a new course that makes science relevant to CJ majors.

Introduction to Forensic Science debuted in the fall of 2008, and doubled its enrollment from about 20 to 40 students when it was offered the following year, according to Natalia Blank, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry who designed and taught the class.

The class was inspired by Norwich’s need for science courses geared at non-science majors, and her own passion for forensics. A grant from Norwich’s Board of Fellows allowed her to develop the project.

“I was always interested in the subject and always kept myself educated,” she said.

Joe Moeller, a senior CJ major, was one of the first to sign up.

“I wanted something as relevant as possible to my major,” he said. “I saw this new science class come up, and a bunch of us decided to take it.”

Instead of dry book learning, he found himself in a challenging, lab-driven program that utilized a variety of hands-on activities. He recalled being given a clean white T-shirt and instructions to wear it for a day. The following day, he brought it to class in a plastic bag for careful examination of the information they could collect from it.

Daniel Frank, a sophomore history major who took the class a year later, remembers learning details about investigation such as the difference between the glass on the front and rear windows of a car, which is useful in determining the angle of impact in a hit-and-run incident. Students also learned how to determine information about a stabbing wound and nature of the crime by studying blood-spot patterns, he said. Following the class, Frank felt he had a sense of procedures to follow at a crime scene.

“I would know where to begin,” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily know everything, but I would know what was going on.”

Other popular experiments, according to Blank, include a lab on the detection and development of fingerprints and an online computer exercise where students compare the minute details of two fired bullets. One of her favorites was an assignment in which she asked students to watch a popular “CSI”-type television drama and catalog some of the errors in techniques depicted. She called it a “reality check” that brings out many of the limitations of scientific crime-solving ignored in TV programs.

“It got rid of some of the myths you see on TV,” said Moeller, adding that the class gave him a sense of the wide variety of skills and hard work needed to solve crimes.

Appleton said a forensic science background gives police officers a better sense of crime-solving techniques available to them, and knowledge of the different types of career paths to follow. For Norwich students, he called it a practical item for a resume.

“We’re looking for graduates to be more employable,” he said, “... to tilt the playing field in their direction.”

Blank, who is working to secure certification that will make Forensic Science part of the regular course list, added she hopes the class gives CJ students a better appreciation of science, including the inclination to analyze problems from a more objective viewpoint.

“In some cases, it’s to help them become less scared of science,” she said.

Frank had one more point to recommend: The class was fun.

“If there were additional courses, I think I would minor in it.”