Standing Out in the Crowd
Written by R. Sue Salem, PhD   

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As students exhibit a continued interest in entering the field of forensic science and crime scene investigation, one academic program is making an effort to provide a unique, hands-on experience—one that will prepare them for a career and make them stand out above their peers.

Beginning in 2012, the University of Tennessee’s National Forensic Academy (NFA) partnered with the University of Tennessee at Martin to offer a unique, hands-on learning experience for criminal justice students. The NFA Collegiate Program (NFACP) is modeled after the NFA’s intensive, ten-week in-residence training program exclusively for law enforcement personnel.

This new program, which just completed its second iteration, promises to help students get ahead in the field.

“Any law enforcement agency I have spoken to has said that applicants with a bachelor’s degree nowadays are becoming a dime a dozen,” said Dr. Brian Donavant, instructor of record for the new National Forensic Academy Collegiate Program at the University of Tennessee. “Agency heads are telling me that, although you need a bachelor’s degree in order to meet the ‘informal’ baseline requirements for hiring, they are looking for folks who stand out from the group. And this program is something that helps young folks to do that.”

Hands-On Cirriculum

Rachel Tuck completed the three-week NFACP program in the summer of 2012. “Every day my class learned something new and we were able to have that hands-on learning experience with trained professionals,” she said. “One of my favorite subjects was photography. You always hear the saying, ‘A picture says a thousand words,’ but I didn’t realize how much truth that statement held until the Academy. Photography is an extremely important part of investigating and I am happy that I had the chance to learn the fundamentals of it at NFA because I know it will help me in my career.”

The NFACP aims to prepare students for a career in the fields of criminal justice and forensic science through instruction by nationally recognized subject matter experts. The curriculum includes:

  • Crime Scene Management
  • Digital Photography
  • Latent Fingerprint Processing
  • DNA for the Crime Scene Investigator
  • Crime Scene Mapping
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Shooting Incident Reconstruction
  • Bloodstain Pattern Analysis

The course is based at the University of Tennessee’s Law Enforcement Innovation Center (LEIC) in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Students also gain knowledge and experience from various offsite training locations including the University of Tennessee’s renowned Anthropology Research Facility.

Making Adjustments

While the curriculum mirrors the instruction provided at the NFA for law enforcement personnel, organizers found it was necessary to consider their audience. Undergraduate students, for example, do not necessarily bring the life experiences and professionalism expected of a practicing CSI or police officer.

“The first year we learned that it was a different adventure from the NFA,” said Donavant. “The people who run the NFA were used to dealing with professionals in the field and not so much with traditional-aged college students. So that was a little bit of a different experience. For many of the students this was their first time really away from home.

“At the NFACP, they got a little more of the adult-education context and a lot more experiential and hands-on than they were accustomed to in more traditional classes in their universities.”

During the three-week course, students must also work to develop skills in collaboration and teamwork. “That was a real learning curve, not only for the students, but also for the staff—because they were more used to working with professionals who were more accustomed to the teamwork type of approach.”

The Collegiate Program also incorporates more academic curriculum than the original NFA. “We had to add in a component that dealt with Constitutional law: search and seizure issues, Fourth Amendment considerations, and things like that,” said Donavant. “We also had to add learning objectives and testing components to the Collegiate Program that had not been in the 10-week NFA program.”

Intense Experiences

Going into the inaugural course in the summer of 2012, organizers pictured the Collegiate Program culminating with hands-on field work at the “Body Farm”, the colloquial name for the Anthropology Research Facility. Donavant said that proved to be sort of a miscalculation.

“We felt the college students had become lulled into a routine during the first two weeks. They were accustomed to the facilities at the LEIC facility. Then, it was a rude awakening to go to a different environment. We thought the Body Farm would be a culminating event, but in some ways it was overwhelming.”

In 2013, the three-week program took students into the field sooner, with a visit to the Anthropology Research Facility during the second week of the course.

“They start in the classroom the first week, get a very intense experience the second week, and then they can reflect on that intense experience when they go back into the classroom the third week. Putting the Body Farm experience in the second week gave us a chance to reflect on the anthropological experience and tie everything together.”

Team Skills

Over the course of their classroom and field work, students also get exposure to working with new people from varied backgrounds and personalities. For many students, this is their first introduction to a fact of life: When you get out into a work environment, you may not like the people you are working with, but you still have a job to do, and you still have to get things done.

That was the greatest “take-away” for those students, organizers observed. After completing the NFACP, students will be able to tell a potential employer, “I know I can go out there, and I can do a job, and I don’t have to worry about personalities. I understand that there are people I may have to work with that I don’t care to socialize with, but I know how to keep that in perspective and get the job done, because I have already done that.”

Getting Credit

Completion of the NFA Collegiate Program provides nine hours of undergraduate credit. The total cost of $4,600 includes tuition, curriculum, housing, training, and equipment. And because this is classified as tuition and program fees, students are able to utilize financial aid. External funding for the program is provided by donors. Some partial scholarships were awarded this year to offset the cost for students. Right now those are limited and are based on performance.

We are just trying to facilitate whatever the student needs to get that credit,” said Donavant. “We were developed by student desire and are driven by students. Students are our customers, and that’s what this is all about.”

Applications are accepted on a first-come-first-served basis as soon as the previous course has concluded. Inquiries began before the first course was over. If need dictates, there is room in the 2014 University of Tennessee calendar to expand to a second class.

The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police has endorsed the NFACP, recognizing the value of practical education in training the next generation of forensic scientists and crime scene investigators. They have agreed that, assuming that NFACP students meet the minimum standards, they will be given extra consideration over folks who have not completed this program.

Prior to leaving for the 2013 NFACP, student Jay Wessel commented, “I know it will be a challenging three weeks, but this is what I want to do in my life. If I can make it through this program and still love criminal investigations, then I know I am on the right path.”

For More Information

Visit the National Forensic Academy Collegiate Program website.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is the Forensic Chemical Science Coordinator in the Chemistry Department at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.

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