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Forensic fascination

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Posted: Friday, September 12, 2003 10:00 pm

Students in Craig Anderson's science class at Galt High School meticulously examined five bags of evidence from a "crime scene."

"This is when it gets good," said Galt senior Katie Crandell.

Out of a bag of what looked like animal hair and horse oats, Crandell pulled out one strand, then laid it on a piece of paper and measured it with a class ruler.

Crandell, with her classmates Angel Mata and Aaron Hanna, both seniors, recorded their observations on gridded composition books, the kind typically found in a high school science class.

"You need to be strictly objective," Anderson said, walking around the 23 students who sat mostly in groups of three. "What did you get?"

The evidence wasn't from a real-life case of murder or kidnapping. Instead, the exercise was the very first science lab in a new class created by Anderson: "Forensic Science and Criminalistics." The class studies all of the different sciences involved with forensic studies.

Anderson admits that the class was partially inspired by CBS' top-rated show "CSI: Crime Science Investigation," but he jumped on the chance to promote a practical application of science in the classroom.

Interest in forensic science has been on the upswing nationally. Universities and colleges are beginning to respond by offering more courses in forensic sciences and creating specialized programs, as well as high schools and junior colleges.

- Enrollment in Baylor University's forensic science program has grown nearly tenfold since 1999, when the program started.

- Syracuse University and Chatham College are considering creating a forensic science minor.

- The University of Baltimore has added a forensic science major, and Saint Louis University has a major in investigative medical sciences.

- New graduate programs have been created at the University of California, Duquesne University and the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

- Programs are also being considered at the California State University campuses at Stanislaus and Fresno, where courses are already offered.

"Within the last year there has been a heavy increase in people and number of students interested in forensic science," said Jim Beede, director of the state's criminology lab in Sacramento. "There's also interest at the high school level and junior high level."

Beede said he has been inundated with queries about internships or positions at the lab. He usually accepts students at the lab that are studying for a masters in

forensic science, or who are in their senior year at a university. Beede said he had six interns last summer, compared with usually only one or two in years prior.

"Students intern on projects with some respect," said Beede, who attributed some of the new interest to the popularity of CSI.

"It's definitely increased the awareness of the importance of crime lab functions," he said. "And the role of the criminalist."

"I certainly have felt and seen everything increase in the popularity of forensic sciences," said John Yoshida, director of the Central Valley Lab in Ripon. "The reality is a bit different (from the television show)."

While the interest in forensic science may have risen and the need is certainly growing, it might not translate directly into job opportunities, said Yoshida. Especially in California with it's bleak economic outlook and ongoing budget problems.

"(The profession of) criminalist within the state of California is a very limited job market," he said. "It is kind of a growth industry, but it is small."

For every job opening at the lab, Yoshida said, he receives a few hundred applications. He interviews at least 10 or 15 applicants before he selects a candidate.

"It certainly gives us the opportunity to look at more qualified people," he added.

Anderson created his "Forensic Science/Criminalistics" course after taking a tour of the forensics laboratory in Ripon with an advanced placement chemistry class. He said he was amazed at how the profession encompassed so many aspects of the science.

Anderson requires all of his seniors to take chemistry and physics and at least one other science class as a prerequisite. Student crime investigators will first learn a history and philosophy of forensic science and this will follow with segments on criminal law and crime scene investigation.

Anderson's students will be asked to investigate mock crime scenes, the physics of blood splatters, and learn about fire arms and weapons. The students will also learn to analyze crime photos, life cycles of insect biology and the chemistry of arson and bombs.

The course will mix several sciences including: Microscopy, entomology, biology and chemistry.

Anderson also has formed a partnership with Judy Murphy, director of San Joaquin Delta College's Center for Microscopy and Allied Sciences. The center just opened its $7.2 million 18,500-square-foot laboratory this semester. In Anderson's class students will learn more about light microscopy, and will be taught how to prepare specimens.

"Her students could set machines up and take pictures," Anderson said. "It would be something where my kids could participate."

Anderson said he put in a grant for an electron microscope where students could control the microscopes' focus at Delta from Galt over the Internet. The plan fell through with the budget crunch, he said.

Murphy was also enthusiastic in the rising interest in forensics and science in general because of the interest in CSI.

"One of the things it did … it encouraged people to get into science again," Murphy said.

"I've seen a big interest pick up with people that want to go into forensics," she added. "But a lot of them get into microscopy when they see all the great things you can do. Maybe I should write a thank you-letter (to the show)."

"I think it'll be pretty cool," Anderson said.

"My hope is to not so much train a kid to be a crime scene investigator," he added. "(I'm hoping) some part of the subject will get kids turned on to some part of science."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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