By Thomas Guengerich
Right: High school students investigate a staged crime scene at New Mexico Tech's Fidel Center. The "body" is a dummy.
SOCORRO, N.M., Dec. 10, 2008 – New Mexico Tech biology professor Dr. Rebecca Reiss is taking her popular course CSI:DNA to the Internet.
The Applera Foundation recently gave $35,000 to Reiss to create an interactive web-based course in forensic science. The Applera Foundation is attached to Applied Biosystems Inc., of Foster City, Calif., which makes the Prism 310 genetic sequencer.
“This is a good match,” Reiss said. “It fits the Applera Foundation’s mission for biology education. The added attraction is that the web module will include their instrumentation.”
The internet module will include three main segments. First, students must take a forensic science tutorial and quiz, which will include 2-D graphics. Then, once officially “certified,” they will visit a 3-D virtual interactive crime scene, where they can navigate the scene and collect DNA and other clues. Finally, students will go to a 3-D interactive forensic crime lab where they will use the Prism 310 to test their DNA.
Computer specialist David Medcalf will create the virtual crime scenes and virtual lab, while Reiss will provide the biological expertise. Within a year, they plan to have a working site open to anyone, although the target audience is high-school teachers and their students.
Left: Dr. Rebecca Reiss, biology professor at New Mexico Tech, received a $35,000 grant from the Applera Foundation, to create an Internet version of her CSI-DNA mini-course in forensic biology.
Reiss is also opening a writing contest to generate the narratives of crimes, all of which must include a body found with various biological and physical clues about the crime.
“The idea is to get some literary scenarios written by fiction writers instead of scientists,” Reiss said.
Originally called CSI:Socorro, the intensive week-long class debuted in 2004 as part of New Mexico Tech’s summer mini-course for high school students. The course immediately became one of the most popular mini-course projects.
Reiss, using a National Science Foundation grant and funding from the university, purchased the Prism 310 in 1998. The Prism 310 Genetic Analyzer was introduced in 1996 as a new method of examining DNA that uses fluorescent tags. Reiss said the instrument is an affordable, versatile, genetic analyzer that is an alternative to gel-based DNA analysis. Also, the Prism 310 produces almost no hazardous waste, unlike previous methods that used radioactive materials, she said. Another benefit is that the fluorescent tag system requires much less genetic material – hair, skin or saliva, for example – to produce a genetic profile.
Reiss incorporated human forensic DNA into her sophomore-level genetics course in 2002. Several police departments from around the country donated expired reagents to help Reiss kick-start the class. Tech graduate Catherine Dickey, who is now a forensic scientist with the Metropolitan Forensic Science Center in Albuquerque, helped Reiss with the technical aspects of forensic genotyping. Scotia Kurowski, a participant in Tech’s Master’s of Science for Teachers program developed the week-long mini-course.
Students in the mini-course gather evidence at a mock crime scene and extract DNA from them. In a small tube, reagents are added that amplify and label specific sections of the DNA. These sections of DNA are known to evolve rapidly and each individual has a unique pattern. Up to 48 samples can be tested at once in the Prism 310 in the Reiss lab, which fires a small laser at the sample. Sensors detect certain wavelengths of light based on the fluorescent tags and the genetic material.
“The results are that we have a genetic fingerprint from a very small sample of DNA,” Reiss said. “This is a powerful technique that has revolutionized forensic DNA analysis.”
Students in the mini-course learn the basic principles behind Prism 310 in Reiss’ biology lab at New Mexico Tech. They get hands-on training in DNA forensics – collecting samples, preparing them for analysis, loading their samples into the instrument, and analyzing the results.
“Not all of the students who take CSI:DNA become forensic scientists,” Reiss said. “But it gets them interested in science and the scientific method.”
During the week-long course, students spend the bulk of the first two days learning the basics about DNA, genetics and the laboratory procedures. For the next three days, the students investigate the crime scene, gather evidence, interview suspects and witnesses and conduct experiments in the lab using the Prism 310.
The new Internet module will make the course available to students and teachers anywhere at anytime.
Medcalf will create at least five different crime scenes, all of which will test students’ abilities to gather evidence and conduct experiments. The web module will include a tracking system for students to follow their own progress.
Web surfers can find a variety of virtual reality scenes on the Internet, but this will be the first crime scene learning module of its kind. Using QuickTime Virtual Reality, Medcalf will stitch together digital pictures of the Fidel Center atrium and lounge to create a 3-D 360-degree representation of the crime scene. He will use Virtual Reality Modeling Language to create the 3-D interactive forensic lab, which will be accessible via any standard browser.
“It will be as if you’re there, immersed in the environment,” Medcalf said.
While the class certainly capitalizes on the CSI franchise of TV shows, Reiss believes the real attraction is the human fascination with mysteries and using the scientific method.
“We want to make it fun but our goal is to show why the scientific method is a powerful tool in forensics,” Reiss said. “And we want to convince people that it’s not difficult to do science. Why are crime scene mysteries popular? Because they encourage critical thinking skills that engage the viewer. Forensic investigations aren’t just an analogy for science. They are science.”
– NMT –