Forensic Chemistry Course Modeled After Crime Lab

Students solve mock crimes by conducting chemistry experiments

A wave of interest with criminal investigation television shows has hit this generation of college students and Roanoke College is bringing these shows to life by offering a chemistry course titled "Investigating Forensic Chemistry." Dr. Benjamin Huddle of the chemistry department composed the course, wrote the laboratory manual and taught it for the first time in the spring of 2007.

For its general studies curriculum, the College requires non-science majors to take at least one lab science such as biology, chemistry or physics. The new course, chemistry 105, will be added to their list of options.

Huddle says chemistry 105 was actualized from a survey conducted by the College asking students "if provided an alternative to the chemistry 101 course such as forensic chemistry, food chemistry, environmental chemistry or other," what they would choose. A majority of the students showed interest in forensic chemistry.

Huddle modeled after the lab portion of the course after an actual crime lab in Roanoke where he spent his recent sabbatical. He says that "in order for the experiments to make sense, the basics need to be learned," which is why he chose for the course to be built according to the course laboratory.

With each experiment, students will be presented with crime scenarios which they will attempt to solve by utilizing principals of chemistry. Like real crime investigators, students will fill out a request for laboratory examination, perform the appropriate procedures, collect data, make calculations and answer a series of questions. At the end, they will fill out a forensic report, a replication of an actual police forensic report.

One of the scenarios involves what starts out to be a car fatality caused by slick roads, but when investigated closely, becomes a hit and run felony resulting in a homicide.

The hopes for the new course are high and Huddle says "even though the chemistry is teaching the exact same thing, we're hoping the motivation to learn that chemistry will be greater."

Students signed up to take the course in the spring have approached Huddle with enthusiasm, saying "Dr. Huddle, I'm taking your chemistry course next spring and I'm so psyched," he says.
Huddle tries to make chemistry not only a good, but a worthwhile and fun experience. He says he tries to teach his students a new and cool piece of information every day so that "after 39 days of class, they'll have 39 good experiences." What drives him in the classroom are the moments where he sees a look in his students' eyes that says "ah hah! I understand and that's neat," he says.

Through this course, Huddle says that he hopes students will learn enough so that they will gain the ability to appreciate the things they read and hear about in the news media and watch on television.

"I don't want to train chemists in this course; I want to train citizens," Huddle says.