CSI effect increases SIUE’s minor enrollment

Arguments about the reality of CSI television shows can be heated. Is it real? Is it not? However, there is one argument that is easy to settle. SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) has seen a dramatic upswing in students interested in studying the field of Forensics Science. This may be due to what some dub as the CSI effect.

According to the non-academic source of Wikipedia, “the CSI effect is is any of several ways in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ influences public perception.” One interesting outcome of the CSI effect is the increased interest in the field, which has allowed CAS to create a minor, as well as look into possible future expansion of the minor.

A SIUE student examines a 'site'. photo courtesy of anthropology.

In 2004, Jennifer Rehg, associate professor of anthropology, was hired in 2004 as an adjunct faculty member to teach a course on forensic anthropology. Rehg stated that her experience in graduate school help prepare her for the course and gave her insight into the overlap between anthropology and forensic science.

“Through graduate school, I had participated in field projects in paleoanthropology, taken human osteology classes, and gross anatomy. And so, a lot of the techniques used in anthropology for forensics sciences fundamentally come from the study of human skeleton,” said Rehg. “At this point, I would say there has been a lot of branching and expansion of that, looking at soft tissue, looking at decomposition, and lots of other things. But, the core and fundamentals are the study of the human skeleton and how it can be used to reconstruct human identity.”

The course began to attract the attention of students, and soon, according to Rehg, there was enough interest from students to warrant expansion of the course. Rehg stated that chemistry and biological sciences students were looking at and taking the course. This led Lucy Kohn, associate professor of biological sciences, to create and teach a course in forensic biological science. Both of the courses continued to see growth in interest and enrollment.

Because of the amount of interest, Julie Holt, associate professor and chair of anthropology convened a roundtable discussion that led to the creation of the interdisciplinary roundtable. Holt, Rehg, and Kohn, along with Ann Dirks-Linhorst, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice studies; and Edward Navarre, assistant professor of chemistry came together to lay the foundation for the minor.

Students enrolled in the minor take courses in four areas: anthropology, biological sciences, chemistry, and sociology and criminal justice. The students have contacts in all four departments that help craft the appropriate path for the direction the student wants the minor to take them. Rehg stated that during the discussions, the participants tried to think of some way to be able to allow students who were interested to be able to find the courses that were relevant and be able to use it in the curriculum or degree.

A SIUE student works with samples in the lab. photo courtesy of anthropology.

SIUE offers students a unique blend of class and field experience. With the archeological field school, students are able to learn how to excavate and do other techniques that will be useful.

“We have a field school we offer every summer which is in archeology and for students interested in forensic anthropology, I always recommend that they take the archeology field school because a lot of the techniques that are used for excavation and evidence recovery in forensics context are the same techniques that are used by archeologists for  prehistoric or historic sites,” said Rehg.

Rehg stated there is also a field school in biological anthropology on the books that hasn’t begun yet. She stated it was designed to allow any number of topics to be covered. The size and scope of the SIUE campus offers students a number of sites they can use to increase their knowledge and skills.

“We’ve had students do projects in forensics–like some of my students, the senior assignment students in anthropology–projects associated with forensics sciences including looking at things like decompositions, effects on skeletal material from different kinds of activities,” said Rehg. “Just having the land available allows for projects that wouldn’t be possible at other universities.”

Keelie Spencer, a senior majoring in integrative biological science and minoring in forensic science, is putting the knowledge she has gained from the program to use with an internship with the Illinois State Police Forensic Science Laboratory. Spencer came to SIUE with an interest in forensic science, and remained grounded until she discovered the minor was being offered.

“I have always been interested in Forensic Science, but decided to attend SIUE to obtain a degree with a non-specific major in case my dream career of being a forensic scientist didn’t work out. I was so excited to get the news that SIUE decided to add a Forensic Sciences minor,” said Spencer. “I knew that it would be a great chance to obtain more knowledge on topics that be beneficial to my future.”

Spencer began the internship this semester, and has quickly come to realize how useful the intenrship will be for her future.

“I have only been to the Forensic Science Laboratory in Springfield a few times so far this semester, but the experience, knowledge, guidance, and acquaintances that I have already gained  is amazing for my future. I am learning all the processes of how forensic science laboratories are ran and the responsibilities from every employee that are vital to the success of the lab,” said Spencer. “I have also been informed of job opportunities and availability, so I have already sent in my application for a SPET (State Police Evidence Technician). This will be my next step for my future in becoming a forensic scientist, and from there I hope to move up to a forensic scientist trainee with the Illinois State Police.”

Paul Brunkow, associate professor and chair of biological sciences, stated that interest in the minor is coming from current students, as they learn about the minor and make choices about their future, and incoming high school students. He stated that nearly every week, he is contacted several times by students asking about the minor.

Rehg stated that she believes that the CSI effect has helped to grow the program and that she hopes forensics science will be offered as a full major if faculty and funding can be found to expand the minor. Rehg said she likes the increased interest in the minor but sometimes feels like she has to bring students back to earth because of the shows.

“One of the things I talk about frequently in the forensics anthropology classes I teach is the things that we can do in forensics, but a lot of the things that we can’t do but that people aren’t aware of because it looks like you should be able to do that if you are just looking at the show–thinking about how long it takes to process a case, and the limits of what you can reconstruct about somebody from skeletal material–it’s nice in some ways  that the shows exist to attract interest but they are so misleading,” said Rehg.

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