Students Learn the Laws of Science Through a Forensic Investigation

By Carolyn Arnold

It was late afternoon at Fairfield’s Bannow Science Center. Dr. Susan Rakowitz, professor of psychology, was returning to her office when she sensed a disturbance. Someone, dressed in black, ran out of her office. A shot rang out.

Looking warily into the office, Dr. Rakowitz was horrified to see it in disarray. Someone had broken into her file cabinet. Blood covered the disheveled files. Someone had clearly been looking for something … but what?

Okay, so this case isn’t quite ready for 48 Hours. In fact, Dr. Amanda Harper-Leatherman, assistant professor of chemistry, had orchestrated the crime for the benefit of the students in her honors course, “Introduction to Forensic Science.”

This course was developed as a core science course by Dr. Harper-Leatherman and Dr. John Miecznikowski, assistant professor of chemistry, and was first taught by Dr. Miecznikowski in Spring 2009. It teaches students about the scientific techniques used for the analysis of physical evidence found at crime scenes.

During the term, students are charged with solving a mystery by recovering evidence from a crime that has been staged for the purposes of the investigation, leaving behind

traces of DNA, fingerprints, hair samples, and other evidence. Students then use the tools of forensic science to identify the guilty parties.

Students Greg Burke ’12, Jon Hurdelbrink ’10, Angelica Mack ’10, Mary McGrath ’10, and Adrianna Sutfin ’11 were assigned to Dr. Rakowitz’s case and would spend the fall semester solving the mystery.

The students signed up for the course for a number of reasons. Hurdelbrink, an economics major said, “It was a great opportunity. Everyone in the class has a diverse academic background and were all on the same level with our science skills.” Burke, an accounting and economics major, simply said, “There’s no other time I would be able to take a forensics course!”

Back at the scene of the crime, Dr. Rakowitz was reeling. “I was shocked and dismayed to find my office open and my papers rifled through. I could see immediately that an envelope marked ‘confidential’ was empty.” The file had contained papers related to a fictional, top-secret faculty committee, Dr. Rakowitz said. “So I knew the theft was linked to that committee.”

Once the students arrived, they dusted for fingerprints, and recovered hair and blood samples. They also found a spent bullet.

The team narrowed down the suspects to the members of the fictional committee, which included Drs. Brian Walker (biology), Shawn Rafalski (mathematics), Laura McSweeney (mathematics), and Robbin Crabtree, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

When Dr. Walker was interviewed he stated, “My history of pure innocence in all things really speaks for itself. That, and I can’t lie to save my life.” A weak alibi at best.

Still, the students analyzed the footprints found in the office and concluded that they most likely belonged to a female. Sutfin, a nursing student who took the course due to a love of Nancy Drew novels said, “The shoeprints were informative. We surmised that it was either a woman, or a man wearing small women’s shoes. That narrowed our suspect list down substantially.”

What of Dean Crabtree? She maintained that she was in her office prior to the crime and readying herself to go to the train station. Staff members vouched for her. But did she go to the train station alone? The students decided to wait for the evidence to tell them more.

Dr. Rafalski recalled that he had been teaching class when the crime took place. However, he told the investigators that he had met with Dr. McSweeney shortly after the crime had occurred and that Dr. McSweeney had been acting strangely.

“I can’t be sure about this,” he said tentatively, “but I think she might have been out of breath. She could have committed the crime and then run down the stairs to meet me.”

Forensic evidence would prove that at least one of the suspects wasn’t telling the truth.

Microscopic analysis of the hair found at the scene compared to that of the suspects revealed little. The hair samples were imbricate (they resemble flattened scales) and had amorphous continuous medulla, which is consistent with human hair. But comparisons at first proved inconclusive.

“Basically, we were able to find out that all of our suspects were human,” joked Hurdelbrink. Yet, based on the color, thickness, and degree of curl of the hairs found at the scene, the students concluded that they most closely matched those of Dean Crabtree. The plot thickened.

Next, the students did an analysis of the bullet found at the scene. Dr. Harper-Leatherman gave the students bullets that were test-fired by the police from guns, allegedly owned by Drs. Walker and McSweeney (in actuality they were from a firing range).

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