CSI: Allentown

Funding from the Mathematical Association of America helped Muhlenberg College professors teach forensic-science techniques to Allentown School District students.

By: Meghan Kita  Monday, November 20, 2017 01:03 PM

News Image
Fingerprinting was just one part of a summer forensic-science workshop held at Muhlenberg for Allentown School District students. Photos courtesy of Eugene Fiorini.

On an otherwise ordinary Thursday last July, students found dance lecturer Sue Creitz (right) slumped over a table in a conference room on the third floor of Trumbower Hall, her arms splayed out in front of her. Her forehead and hair were stained red. Across the table from her, two chairs had been overturned, as if someone had hurried to flee the area.

But on this day, Creitz was not herself: She was part of a crime scene that had been staged for Allentown School District juniors and seniors attending a forensic-science workshop on campus. Creitz played the victim, says Truman Koehler Professor of Mathematics Eugene Fiorini, and the victim was “Professor M. T. Set, a ‘nasty’ chemistry professor who treated people badly.”

Creitz, like several other faculty members, “desperately wanted to play the dead person,” adds chemistry lecturer Gail Marsella, who worked with Fiorini and three Allentown School District teachers to plan and carry out the four-day-long program. The workshop received $5,000 in funding from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) as a 2017 Tensor-SUMMA (Strengthening Underrepresented Minority Mathematics Achievement) Project.

The instructors hoped to show Allentown youth that math and science have real-world applications. “It’s often all high-school teachers can do just to cover the basics in class—they don’t get an opportunity to explore some of the more interesting things,” Fiorini says. “For many of the students, for the first time, they saw how math and science get used out there.”

An Experiment That Even Challenged the Professors

Prior to this summer, Fiorini and Marsella had collaborated on a forensic-science cluster for Muhlenberg students, and that partnership helped inspire this summer program. “We ran it as a miniature version of what we do in the college course,” Marsella says.

“The professors had the instructional experience and the curriculum, but they didn’t know how to aim it to high-school-age students,” says Jeff Holzman, a science teacher at Allen High School. “Along with my colleague from Dieruff High School and another teacher from Building 21, we were kind of an advisory panel.”

The program could accommodate 20 high-school students, so of the 34 who applied, the juniors and seniors were accepted first. Those students were invited to campus, where, for the first three days, the group learned about the math and science of forensics. 

“We went through all the different things a forensic scientist would need to know,” Fiorini says. “We looked at algorithms for fingerprint matching and blood-spatter analysis. Gail talked about toxicology and DNA analysis. We talked about protocol and processing evidence, chain of custody and what to do when you first arrive at a crime scene.”

And on Thursday, the final day, the students arrived to find Creitz “dead.” “They got carried away, shall I say, with the crime scene,” Fiorini says. “They arrested all three suspects—they weren’t supposed to—and they were going to carry them off.”

The students also found “evidence” inside a trash can that had been overlooked when Fiorini and Marsella staged the area. “They took the contents out and they processed them,” Fiorini says. “They were finding things we did not plant, so Gail and I just sort of ad-libbed on the fly.”

The Future of Summer Forensics

Fiorini and Marsella are at work preparing a proposal for more funding in 2018. (The MAA grant allows them to reapply to fund the same program for three consecutive years.) Next summer, they’re hoping to expand the program to last two weeks: In the first, students from the 2017 program will be invited back to assist a new class of forensics-program participants; in the second, that group will take a modified version of the program to middle-school students at the Casa Guadalupe Center in downtown Allentown.

“The high-school students are going to be applying what they’ve learned to the middle-school students and planning a staged crime scene,” Fiorini says. “Maybe we’ll involve two Allentown School District teachers instead of three, because that gives us more money to pay the student teachers—I’ll let the mathematician handle that,” Marsella adds.

While the program will retain some elements from the first year, the instructors will likely introduce different forensic-investigation techniques. “I had a list of stuff to do in the camp, and we got through maybe half of it,” Marsella says.

Despite the abundance of interesting math and science that could be part of the program, Holzman hopes that one crucial element will be preserved: some time to discuss higher education. “We spent a good hour one afternoon talking about college opportunities, college prep, financial aid—having those discussions. We don’t typically get a chance to do that in the classroom,” he says. “I think the students got some exposure to college life and professors, and they learned it’s not anything to be afraid of. Their classrooms and their labs are better equipped than ours, but they don’t look that much different. The professors aren’t these ivory-tower people—they’re just regular people.”