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Going virtual: Crime scene reconstruction and lab techniques

How do you transform labs meant for in-person instruction into successful virtual experiences? With lots of creativity and a heavy dose of technology.

This article is part of a series featuring innovative teaching practices in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

tal simmons
Tal Simmons, Ph.D.

When VCU made the decision to move students to online learning last March, Catherine Connon, Ph.D., and Tal Simmons, Ph.D., in the Department of Forensic Science didn’t know what they were going to do. For Simmons, there was just one assignment left in her undergraduate course, Scientific Crime Scene Investigation, and it was a big one. It was a major incident investigation, a day-long exercise in full personal protective gear, and made up half of their students’ grades for the semester.

“This assignment is important for my students because it gives them an opportunity to put all the labs from the semester into practice within the context of their own investigation,” explained Simmons. “They are in charge of their scene from the moment they receive the report of the crime and have a search warrant. All the decision making is theirs and they have to apply the scientific methods they have learned in a logical sequence, working together as a team.”

a husky lying on a blanket next to a knife
For one assignment, Tal Simmons instructed students to construct a do-it-yourself crime scene, where students were responsible for depicting a homicide in one of their living spaces.

Simmons quickly developed a new assignment, a do-it-yourself crime scene, where students were responsible for depicting a homicide in one of their living spaces. Students posed housemates, pets and even stuffed animals as the victim of the crime, and substituted real lab instruments for household items. For example, flour took the place of fingerprint powder while cellphone cameras subbed in for digital SLRs.

“My students really learned that an investigation has lots of moving parts. Even though the assignment was different than the typical in-person exercise, the new assignment still reinforced both the scientific thinking applied to the process of crime scene investigation as well as the individual lab skills needed.”

This spring, Simmons took the do-it-yourself crime scene investigation even further. She and her graduate teaching assistants created take-home kits for students that included materials for latent print visualization, a fake blood recipe, dental stone to make a cast of a footwear impression and evidence packaging materials. She also filmed lab exercises in the lab and showed them during lab periods with the students so they were able to replicate the work at home with the materials in the take home kits.

“I've had to make three totally different adjustments to the way I’d normally teach the course …It just goes to show that we, as instructors, can be more flexible in our approach than we often think.” - Tal Simmons

Lab activities also got a virtual makeover for the Forensic Serology and Forensic Molecular Biology lab courses. Typically forensic science students perform a number of in-person lab tests with blood and semen samples in the serology course. This time, Connon devised virtual labs using interactive, animated PowerPoint slides. A virtual lab bench was set up with all the tools found in a normal lab. Students then had to perform various tests as described in their lab manuals. Imagery from real samples were interspersed in the PowerPoint as they worked through the lab, and the lab would routinely ask them questions about the tasks as they completed them.

catherine connon
Catherine Connon, Ph.D.

“The feedback from my students was overwhelmingly positive,” said Connon. “Not only were students amazed that such a sophisticated, professional virtual lab had been created using PowerPoint, but they also commented that it was realistic and helped them visualize and better understand the labs.”

Another obstacle that Connon had to overcome was the issue of software access. Two of the department’s courses included hands-on activities with software typically accessed on department computers due to licensing issues. With the move to virtual learning, students needed a way to still use the software. Enter Zoom Remote Control. All Connon had to do was initiate Zoom from the computer that had the desired software and grant the student remote access. Multiple computers were set up simultaneously and accessed through independent Zoom sessions.

“Students performed just as well on this activity through remote access to the software as they have in previous semesters with direct access to it,” said Connon. “They were truly pleased to have had a similar experience as students in a ‘normal’ non-virtual semester.”

a bench in a virtual forensic science lab full of tools and implements. a message says 'welcome to your virtual forensic science laboratory! this is your virtual lab bench. many of your supplies are laid out on the bench. click on each for a brief description. if you need something else, please check the drawers.'
An interactive, animated PowerPoint slide from Forensic Serology and Forensic Molecular Biology lab courses

Zoom also came in handy for breakout rooms. Students worked together in small groups within breakout rooms while instructors floated around, answering questions and giving feedback as needed, much in the same way as a physical classroom. And, Connon and Simmons found that recording their lectures was another easy way to help their students. Students could revisit lectures to review tough concepts, something students can’t do when the class is in person.

It took a lot of creativity to move their courses into the virtual environment, but it worked. Students responded positively to the changes and Simmons and Connon learned just how nimble they could be as instructors. “

I’m proud of the fact that, in the three semesters I’ve taught FRSC 309: Forensic Crime Scene Investigation, I've had to make three totally different adjustments to the way I’d normally teach the course and yet they have all worked out reasonably well for the students,” said Simmons. “It just goes to show that we, as instructors, can be more flexible in our approach than we often think; there is indeed more than one way to accomplish the goal.”

Connon agrees. “I am most proud of the positive feedback I got from my students. It makes all of those long days (and nights) of planning things down to the T worth it, knowing your students appreciate and value the hard work you have put in so that they may have a robust learning experience.”