A dog lying on a couch with a knife.
Greg Sandoe's dog, Bandit, plays the role of victim in a mock crime scene Sandoe created at home for his forensic science class. (Courtesy of Greg Sandoe)

Reconstructing the crime scene

How do you transform a forensic science lab meant for in-person instruction into a successful virtual experience? With lots of creativity and a heavy dose of technology.

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When Virginia Commonwealth University made the decision to move students to online learning last March, there was just one assignment left in the undergraduate course “Scientific Crime Scene Investigation,” and it was a big one. It was a major incident investigation, a daylong exercise in full personal protective gear that made up half of the students’ grades for the semester. 

“This assignment is important for my students because it gives them an opportunity to put all the labs from the semester into practice within the context of their own investigation,” said Tal Simmons, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “They are in charge of their scene from the moment they receive the report of the crime and have a search warrant. All the decision making is theirs and they have to apply the scientific methods they have learned in a logical sequence, working together as a team.”  

Simmons quickly developed a new assignment, a do-it-yourself crime scene, where students were responsible for depicting a homicide in one of their living spaces. Students posed housemates, pets and even stuffed animals as the victim, and substituted lab instruments for household items. For example, flour took the place of fingerprint powder.  

“My students really learned that an investigation has lots of moving parts,” Simmons said. “Even though the assignment was different than the typical in-person exercise, the new assignment still reinforced both the scientific thinking applied to the process of crime scene investigation as well as the individual lab skills needed.”

This spring, Simmons has taken the do-it-yourself crime scene investigation even further. She and her graduate teaching assistants created take-home kits for students that included materials for latent print visualization, a fake blood recipe, dental stone to make a cast of a footwear impression, and evidence packaging materials. She also filmed lab exercises and showed them during lab periods with the students so they were able to replicate the work at home with materials in the take-home kits. 

Lab activities also got a virtual makeover for “Forensic Serology” and “Forensic Molecular Biology.”  Typically, forensic science students perform a number of in-person lab tests with blood and semen samples in the serology course. This time, Catherine Connon, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Forensic Science, devised virtual labs using interactive, animated PowerPoint slides. A virtual lab bench was set up with all of the tools found in a normal lab. Students then had to perform various tests as described in their lab manuals. Imagery from real samples was interspersed in the PowerPoint as they worked through the lab.

“The feedback from my students was overwhelmingly positive,” Connon said. “Not only were students amazed that such a sophisticated, professional virtual lab had been created using PowerPoint, but they also commented that it was realistic and helped them visualize and better understand the labs.”

I've had to make three totally different adjustments to the way I’d normally teach the course …It just goes to show that we, as instructors, can be more flexible in our approach than we often think.

Another obstacle that Connon had to overcome was the issue of software access. Two of the department’s courses included hands-on activities with software typically accessed on department computers. With the move to virtual learning, Connon initiated Zoom from the computer that had the desired software and granted the students remote access. 

“Students performed just as well on this activity through remote access to the software as they have in previous semesters with direct access to it,” Connon said. “They were truly pleased to have had a similar experience as students in a normal nonvirtual semester.” 

Connon and Simmons also found that recording their lectures was another easy way to help. Students could revisit lectures to review tough concepts, something they can’t do when class is in-person. 

It took a lot of creativity to move courses into the virtual environment, but it worked. Students responded positively to the changes and Simmons and Connon learned just how nimble they could be as instructors. 

“I’m proud of the fact that, in the three semesters I’ve taught FRSC 309: ‘Forensic Crime Scene Investigation,’ I've had to make three totally different adjustments to the way I’d normally teach the course, and yet they have all worked out reasonably well for the students,” Simmons said. “It just goes to show that we, as instructors, can be more flexible in our approach than we often think; there is indeed more than one way to accomplish the goal.”

Connon agreed.

“I am most proud of the positive feedback I got from my students. It makes all of those long days (and nights) of planning things down to the T worth it, knowing your students appreciate and value the hard work you have put in so that they may have a robust learning experience.”

A version of this article first published on the College of Humanities and Sciences website.