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WVU hooks future forensic science students

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Photo courtesy of WVU’s Next Generation Forensic Science Initiative Photo courtesy of WVU’s Next Generation Forensic Science Initiative

By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal

West Virginia University is teaching middle and high school students the science that stars in TV police procedural shows such as Fox's "Bones" and CBS's "NCIS."

Seventy-five students attend free 90-minute forensics workshops once a month at the Vehicle Processing Center in WVU's Crime Scene Complex in Morgantown.

They've already learned about biometrics and fingerprints.

"We inflated balloons and put fingerprints on them and compared what kind we had," said Camila Romero, 11, of Morgantown. "It's really fun."

In the coming months, they'll study footwear impression evidence, firearm identification and bloodstain pattern analysis.

"All activities for all classes are practical activities where they get to examine and compare simulated items of evidence," said Chris Bily, instructional coordinator, for forensic and investigative science.

In March, students will analyze footwear to see if it matches a shoe leaving a footprint at a crime scene. In April, students will examine bullets to determine whether they could possibly have come from the same gun. In May, when they do bloodstain pattern analysis, they'll use a synthetic blood the physical consistency of real blood that has been purchased for classroom investigation.

Isabella Gibson, 12, of Fairmont, has signed up for all the classes because she watches police procedural TV shows.

"I finished watching the show that was on before ‘Bones' came on," Gibson recalled about the first time she watched a show about forensic science. "Then I watched ‘Bones' and I said, ‘I wanna do that. That's really cool.' I figured out what it was and I was Googling things and reading about it, reading articles. I was hooked on it.

"It's a good way to help people and solve crimes and give justice to the victim who was killed, but also I'm a science geek. I love everything having to do with science."

Gibson wants to be a forensic anthropologist like Kathy Reichs, the real-life forensic anthropologist and novelist who inspired "Bones." 

TV dramas attract students to the forensics field, and WVU's Next Generation Forensic Science Initiative aims to make sure students know what they're in for. 

"A lot of what they see on TV is not reality," Bily said. "Television forensic science is frequently misrepresented, factually incorrect and glamorized for television ratings purposes. 

"We wanted to give them a realistic forensic science experience and in doing so we wanted to get them interested in STEM education and STEM careers."

It's not a tough sell. 

These workshops evolved out of WVU's participation in the nine-day 2013 National Scout Jamboree in Fayette county, said Gerald Lang of WVU Research. 

WVU showcased its forensic sciences program with 11 different activities representing seven different forensic disciplines. Those exercises involved alternate light source applications, biometrics, bloodstain pattern analysis, digital evidence, fingerprints, footwear, firearms and tool marks. Scouts who completed four or more exercises received a patch from WVU.

Lang said they awarded 6,000 patches in four days.

There may be more opportunities to take the workshops in the future.

"I would like to say, ‘yes, we will do it again, if funds permit,'" Bily said. "The classes have been extremely popular and very well received."