Students learn about forensics at Central Penn College

EAST PENNSBORO TOWNSHIP—Fans of “CSI” and other crime dramas aren’t getting accurate information on what really takes place behind the scenes of police investigations, and Samuel Morgan is aiming to set the record straight, one student at a time.

The chair of the criminal justice and homeland security management at Central Penn College recently addressed a class of about 40 high school students from around the region who registered for the two-day “Discover Forensics” camp.

Representatives from the Cumberland County District attorney’s office and Shippensburg University forged a partnership with the college to give students a glimpse of what it’s like to work in the field of forensics.

“We’re really committed to STEM education, getting students involved in the sciences and preparing our students for careers once they graduate. This gives them a sneak preview into what is involved in being a criminal investigator and helps them decide before they even step foot into a college setting,” said Christine Tobias, public relations director for the college.

During day one, students gathered at the Health Sciences Building for a tour of the Cumberland County Computer Forensics Crime Truck before moving inside to learn some of the many techniques used in the forensics field.

“We like to show the public how hard these professionals work,” Morgan said. “Nobody drives a Hummer, or works out of a $2 million lab. These are the true heroes, the ones who go out at 3 a.m. and do the jobs that nobody wants to do at that time of the morning, and they do it with true professionalism.”

One of the first hands-on exercises included extracting bullet fragments from a slab of gelatin that Morgan prepared earlier. The instructor ordered Knox gelatin in bulk, then mixed the substance in tubs, which he loaded up and transported to the shooting range. “I left the gelatin in the bins and shot them with a low caliber, low speed ammo from a 12-gauge shotgun,” he said.

Students were challenged to use a skewer to track the bullet path, then extract the fragments with tweezers and an X-ACTO knife. “In this lab, we will allow you to use the tweezers, but in a real lab you wouldn’t because using a metal instrument could alter the striations, making it impossible to link a bullet to a particular gun,” said instructor Anne Bizup, before allowing the students to tackle the wiggly slabs.

Some took a dainty and deft approach to extract the tiny specks, while others hacked through the gel with abandon.

Rebecca Najdek of York worked diligently and carefully as she removed fragments from the gel, saying that her mother attended medical school and that sparked an interest in the camp. “I’m really good at science and pick up quickly,” the 14-year-old student explained.

Later in the day, attendees listened to lectures on fingerprinting, a means of identification that dates back more than 2,000 years. The students learned about whorls, arches and loops, and engaged in a hands-on exercise that included lifting fingerprints from a soda can using gloves, a brush, black powder and tape — something 16-year-old Carly Holtzman may use in her future endeavors.

“I want to work in forensics as a career,” said the York resident.

Some had difficulty finding fingerprints on their individual cans and needed a little assistance. “Fingerprint work can be tedious,” the instructor said.

Students also learned other techniques integral to a career in forensics, like using alternate light sources to detect biological agents like urine and blood, and chemical extraction of bullet residue from fabric.

At the end of the two days, students participated in a mock crime scene to apply what they learned.

Morgan said there was a lot of enthusiasm for the camp and he thinks the students walked away with a much deeper knowledge of what it takes to pursue a career in forensics. “Through this camp, our goal was to accurately show the difference between how forensics is portrayed on television and how forensics works in actuality.”