For three consecutive days in the month of June, 14 bright young minds from Missouri and Illinois joined Columbia College faculty for its inaugural Forensic Science and Criminal Justice Summer Camp. This all-intensive introduction to forensic science and crime scene investigation exposed inquisitive high school students to real-world scenarios with hands-on experience related to the forensic science profession.
Barry Langford, professor of Criminal Justice Administration and chair of the Forensic Science program, said the faculty saw a need for a summer camp that offered a broader overview of the criminal justice and forensic science process. Students participating in the camp not only learned about collection and preservation of evidence at a crime scene, they also learned how to investigate and analyze that evidence in the laboratory and then how to present that evidence in the courtroom.
“I think what makes our camp unique is that we offer a balanced approach to three separate areas, and all of those areas are going to be important for somebody that wants to work in this field. We offer work with the crime scene, work at the crime lab and then work on being in court. Somebody that wants to work in this area is going to have to do all of those things,” Langford said.
The summer camp was intentionally planned to be small in order to provide students with more interaction from Columbia College faculty. Students spent most of their time engaging in a variety of hands-on activities with faculty members who each brought different professional backgrounds within the three separate focus areas of the camp.
Instructor of Forensic Science, Mike Himmel, said the camp attendees worked on numerous hands-on projects similar to those that Columbia College students would work on in their major. They used the same facilities and equipment, including the crime simulation and chemistry laboratories.
According to the summer campers, their favorite activity was blood stain evidence. Using forensic science techniques, they illuminated simulated blood splatter that’s initially invisible to the naked eye. Another student favorite was learning how to simulate 3D blood stain reconstruction.
“The techniques that they were exposed to were the same techniques that we would apply to a crime scene. It’s the same equipment,” Himmel said. “That’s one of the aspects that we do here at Columbia College, is the equipment that we use for our hands-on mock exercises mirrors the exact equipment if they go out in the real world eventually and get a job.”
One of the challenges the faculty said they face every day is what Himmel calls the “CSI effect,” or the exaggeration of forensic science and criminal investigation through television. Audiences sit on the edge of their seats as a tidy little package of crime scene investigation unfolds from start to finish within an hour long episode. This summer camp also served as a way to help clarify those misconceptions for curious students.
Dr. Melinda McPherson is an assistant professor who specializes in forensic science laboratory work.
“They’re made for entertainment,” she said. “One of the biggest things I think that people don’t realize when they are watching these shows is really the timeline. So one of the great things about our summer camp is we give our students a better understanding for the background information, or the background science, that really goes into disciplines like forensic science and crime scene investigation.”
At the conclusion of the camp, many students said they wanted to come back next year. Some of them even stated they’d like the camp to be even longer so they can learn even more, and every student said they would recommend this camp to their friends.
“Our Forensic Science and Criminal Justice Summer Camp at Columbia College is really a great opportunity for all students, not just those who maybe think they have a particular focus in Forensic Science,” Dr. McPherson said. “We don’t require you to have any significant background in chemistry or biology or anything like that. It gives students an opportunity to kind of get their feet wet and see if they like it, and then from there they can decide, ‘hey is this something I’m interested in doing as a career?’”
High school junior Jessica Wideman said this camp really reinforced her passion to study Forensic Science. “I’m actually already planning on coming next year,” she said. When asked what she’d tell her friends about attending the camp, she said, “You never know, you might discover your calling.”
The faculty already proposed new, even more engaging ideas for the camp’s likely return for a second year. One idea might even involve investigating the kidnapping of Columbia College’s beloved mascot, Scooter the Cougar. Right now, the sky is the limit.