Forensics in action: chemistry and math serve as a strong crime tool kit

One of the first takeaways from CSI: Environment, students find, is that forensics isn’t as simple as it appears on television.

 Monday, March 6, 2017 02:21 PM

The cluster pair combines Environmental Chemistry as Evidence, taught by Gail Marsella, lecturer of chemistry, and Mathematical/Statistical Forensics, taught by , Truman Koehler Professor of Mathematics.

Throughout the semester, students discover the many ways that chemistry and mathematics assist in forensic science. Experiments help them explore the probability of certainty from a chemical analysis of DNA; the biochemical molecules present in environmental pollutants; and the trigonometry and calculus behind tracing a bullet's trajectory.

The students quickly see that the answers are rarely as simple as "yes" or "no." They arrive at their conclusions only after compiling and weighing what is sometimes imperfect or incomplete information, but even those incomplete answers are ones they find worth pursuing.

"What our students find," says Marsella, "is that science isn’t about certainty; it’s about the management of uncertainty."

The final exam required students to examine a simulated crime scene that portrayed the intentional “murder” of a bald eagle. Students worked together to analyze and interpret evidence while also working together to catalog the scene and reduce the likelihood of unintentional scene contamination. Groups worked to cordon off the scene, section and photograph each feather and blood splatter, and interview potential witnesses.

And along the way, students realized that with the right critical thinking skills and guidance from their professors, they had the solutions to problems within reach.

To Fiorini, those moments of curiosity and confidence are the most satisfying results of the courses.

"To be able to turn them into independent thinkers, as well as independent learners, where they can convince themselves that they’ve got the correct answer, where we as professors are no longer needed to confirm their assumptions; that is, for me, the ultimate goal of this course," he says.

As for the perpetrator responsible for our bald eagle’s death? Well, you’d have to do the math yourself to figure that one out.