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Mini-Courses at New Mexico Tech To Focus on Forensics

by Valerie Kimble

SOCORRO, N.M., June 20, 2007 – We have an insider’s tip that the Fidel Student Services Center on the New Mexico Tech campus will be the scene of a crime on June 27, and it will be up to high school students in twin mini-course on campus to figure out “who done it?”.

Both the “CSI: DNA” and “CSI: Psychology” week-long mini-courses involve a staged crime at the three-story, student union complex. This is the fourth year for the DNA mini-course, and the first one for Psychology, in the CSI series.

“Before they investigate the crime scene, students in the DNA section learn how to micropipette, isolate DNA and analyze the rapidly evolving sections of their own DNA that are used in forensic identification,” said Dr. Rebecca Reiss, assistant professor of biology at Tech and course instructor.

“Their new skills in molecular manipulations will be tested on DNA samples from the crime scene,” said Reiss.

New this year is the psychology section which focuses on the application of psychological principles in forensics. Students will learn the limitations of “lie-detector” tests and gain experience with a physiological recorder.

Psychology associate professor Dr. Mark Samuels and Joleen Welborn, a student in the university’s Master of Science Teaching (MST) program, will lead the section.

Mini-course students will apply their knowledge to suspects, victims, and witnesses portrayed by members of the Socorro Community Theater.

“Other sections of the course may be added in subsequent years, including one that focuses on the math and physics involved in crime scene reconstructions,” said Reiss.

The instrumentation that makes “CSI: DNA” possible was obtained in 1998 with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Department of Undergraduate Education by Reiss.

Donations of expired reagents from police departments allowed the incorporation of a forensic DNA as a unit in the undergraduate genetics course. This unit was modified for high school students, and a pilot project was launched in 2002 by Scotia Kurowski, then an MST student at Tech.

Helping with the crime scene is Mary Robinson, a Rio Rancho High School teacher who specializes in forensics.

Catherine Dickey, a forensic scientist with the Bernalillo Metropolitan Forensic Science Center, provides the necessary expertise in forensics.

It was first run as a part of a mini-course program in 2004. Almost 50 students have participated over the past four years.

-- NMT --