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CSI Oshawa: Not your typical classroom

CSI

Not far from their university campus, students dressed in white paper suits are excavating a potential gravesite using small garden spades, painstakingly sifting small scoops of dirt for bones, teeth and clothing.

Not far from their university campus, students dressed in white paper suits are excavating a potential gravesite using small garden spades, painstakingly sifting small scoops of dirt for bones, teeth and clothing.

In the nearby house, a body is lying on the living room floor surrounded by blood. Down the hall, still more blood is splattered over a bedroom wall. In the driveway, the front window of a car surrounded by police tape has two bullet holes in it.

For University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) forensic science students, the innovative crime scene house and mock crime scenes are an ideal training ground. They used the staged evidence to practise skills like collecting DNA, fingerprints and footwear impressions.

Each room of the house –which is actually a ranger’s cabin located on Camp Samac property near the Oshawa campus — is equipped with a video camera, so professors can monitor students as they conduct investigations.

First in Ontario
The house — the first of its kind in Ontario — had been used as a pilot project for the past two years and was officially opened in October. It’s the brainchild of Dr. William Smith, dean of UOIT’s faculty of science, who visited a similar house in the United Kingdom while developing the forensic science program.

He credits hit TV shows like CSI with increasing the popularity of forensic science. Though UOIT students have their own set on which to recreate crimes, they quickly learn that the work of a forensic scientist is much more labour intensive and much less glamorous than is portrayed by Hollywood stars.

They’re learning how to document, collect, recover and preserve forensic evidence at the scene so it can be analyzed in a forensic laboratory and is admissible in court. They use innovative tools such as hand-held portable microscopes and tablet computers that allow them to make scene sketches and wirelessly transmit them to the university. Collected data is later examined in UOIT’s forensic science laboratory.

Third-year student Bonnie Caruana hopes to one day work in a lab and believes the training will give her a valuable head start in forensic science. “The crime scene house influenced my decision to study here,” the Tweed native says. “I’m learning things like taking measurements, what precautions to take in the rain and the importance of taking lots of pictures.”

Job opportunities
There are a growing number of opportunities for forensic scientists, including work with police forces, governmental agencies (such as customs and immigration, or document examination) and as claims investigators with insurance companies.

The crime scene house highlights the many advances made in forensic science over the years, says Inspector David Kimmerly of Durham Regional Police’s major crimes unit. “In its simplest form, forensic science is about capturing an event in the past … to recreate an event in a courtroom, to the very moment the crime took place, so courts can take appropriate action.”

Durham’s force is among the police that use the crime scene house to train its officers. The university also offers one-week summer camps there for high school students, to encourage them to consider a career in forensic science.

Emerging field
Forensic science is an emerging interdisciplinary area of science and involves the use of scientific principles to analyse evidence for legal investigations. The University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s bachelor of science (honours) in forensic science has a strong base in biology, calculus, chemistry and physics, with courses related to forensic aspects of law, psychology and toxicology.

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