It's Not 'CSI:' A New Class Explores How Forensic Science Works in the Real World

The semester exam for the new forensic science class is anything but typical.

“I used this product called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Blood, which you can get on Amazon,” said teacher and Assistant Academic Dean Laura Barrosse-Antle, who teaches the class. “Then I used a bunch of plastic sheeting from when I painted my home and hung it up so I can get everything messy. And then I had a copier box with a Ziploc baggie of the fake blood in it and had a friend stab it, and that created blood spatter.”

During the exam, Barrosse-Antle also planted evidence like fingerprints, and gave the students DNA results. Dressed in lab coats and armed with evidence baggies, students gathered and interpreted the evidence in a graded whodunit.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Barrosse-Antle who came up with the class; in fact, the idea started during the 2017/2018 school year, when two students proposed it. After approaching then-Academic Dean Min Kim and Department Chair Tom Donley, the students completed a survey showing there was enough interest to get the class off the ground. Barrosse-Antle officially proposed the course in 2018, and the rest is history—well, science.

“I had taken biology, chemistry, and physics, and I wanted to see what forensic science had to offer,” said Zion ’20, who’s in his second semester of the course. “And I learned it combined all three of those in different ways.”

“When we did blood-stain pattern analysis, we talked about what the forces acting on a blood droplet are that actually make it spherical in the air, which then affects what actually happens when it hits the ground,” said Barrosse-Antle. “And you can actually use trigonometry to figure out where the points of origins are for different blood stains.”

But it turns out that forensics isn’t like a lot of other sciences. “My expertise is specifically analytical chemistry, so when I was thinking about what I wanted to include, I wanted to make sure that I was coming at it from the scientific side,” Barrosse-Antle said. “And what that led me to were a large number of reports that have been done relatively recently about the state of forensic science. In 2015, the FBI released a report in which they said that in over 95 percent of cases involving hair and fiber testimony, the expert witness had overestimated or overstated the utility of that evidence.”

The ways in which forensic science can be manipulated or misread, then, became a surprise addition to the course’s curriculum.

“A lot of what we have talked about was that a lot of forensic science has to do with the courtroom and law and basically drawing conclusions from the data that you have,” says Zion. “And a lot of time lawyers and courts draw the claims out to a point where it’s not scientifically supported.”

“It’s a first for me, and it’s been really cool, especially given the School’s emphasis on equity,” Barrosse-Antle said. “There aren’t a lot of ways to talk about societal issues in chemistry, whereas in forensic science it’s a philosophical issue. Do you want to interpret evidence so that you’re more likely to put someone away, which means you’re going to have some false positives and put some innocent people away? Or do you want to say that you have to be absolutely 100 percent certain, in which case you might not put away guilty people ever? One way of being more just is to know both the law and the science.”

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