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Will UND Forensic Science students crack the case?

In first-ever weekend bootcamp, students could solve ‘crime,’ earn certificate from state Bureau of Criminal Investigation

Students collect evidence
Working an earlier case in the field, UND Forensic Science students carefully sort through evidence collection materials. This weekend, two dozen students will participate in the first-ever Forensic Science Bootcamp at Turtle River State Park. While collaborating as a CSI team, the students will collect evidence and conduct professional investigation techniques to solve the case of a “missing body” in the woods. Photo courtesy of Lavinia Iancu/Director of UND Forensic Science Program.

At least two dozen students will comb the woods for clues this weekend in UND’s first-ever Forensic Science Bootcamp at Turtle River State Park.

Call it the Case of the Missing Body.

Assistant Professor and Forensic Science Director Lavinia Iancu says the students will take on the real-life roles of forensic investigators at a mock crime scene while also testing their skills to earn a joint certificate from UND and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Special Agent Derek Madsen of the BCI will assist in the three-day training exercises that will include investigative activities during both daylight and nighttime conditions.

“I’m always looking for ways to boost our undergraduates’ experience, so I’m trying to replicate some of the same field training that practitioners regularly can get,” Iancu said. “We’re going to cover everything from friction ridge (fingerprint) analysis to ballistics, outdoor crime scene reconstruction and all sorts of other techniques.”

Investigators ordinarily could earn special credentials upon completion of such training, Iancu said, but usually not without a price. Rather, a day of professional field training normally could cost an individual well over $1,000.

In this case, the students will receive the same high-caliber training free of charge thanks to a $2,500 gift from the College of Arts & Sciences Advisory Board.

Iancu added that the bootcamp is limited to 24 students to ensure instructors have time to monitor and advise them one on one.

“This bootcamp will be a chance for juniors and seniors to really demonstrate what they have learned from all of our hands-on activities and class experience,” she said. “This is serious and will not by any means be an easy training session. They will need to apply all their knowledge. They will be tested.”

She added with a laugh: “It will be a little bit like a weekend in the Army. I will have my megaphone, and we will be getting up early.”

The first trick will be getting there

The students will need to pack themselves — along with several coolers filled with food and drinks from University Catering — into two 15-passenger vans to make the short trip to the recreation area 2 miles north of Arvilla, N.D.

“When we are leaving Friday afternoon, it’s going to be a little bit like a flying circus,” Iancu said. “Everyone is going to have blankets and pillows, and we also are going to need to bring everything we have from the lab — evidence kits, hazmat suits, all the gear.”

Their accommodations at camp? They’ll bunk in some very nice cabins with some very sparse amenities — an environment that also happens to be perfectly conducive to late-night conversations that can help connect the dots in a case.

Iancu said the weekend will begin with an ice-breaker whodunit game called “Werewolves” on Friday evening, but the next two days will be filled with experiential learning as the students are immersed in a full crime scene investigation.

“The plan is to be really true, so we are going to put them in a real-case scenario, minus the actual crime. And teamwork is going to be more important than ever,” Iancu said. “I think it will be different to have them all together in one place for more than one day. It actually can help them create a connection so they can learn how to collaborate as part of a large team. They will need to depend on each other and trust each other. Here, there can be no one-man show.”

Forensic Science students at mock crime scene
One of the most important steps in processing the scene of a crime is to document the evidence. Photo courtesy of Lavinia Iancu/Director of UND Forensic Science Program.

At the scene of the crime

Iancu didn’t want to give the case away by revealing too much, but she did say the scenario unfolds after a man walking his dog stumbles upon some very ominous materials in the woods.

“All the evidence will be outside in the open field, and that’s very hard to investigate,” she said. “Sometimes you can miss evidence even when it’s in plain sight.”

And as the CSI team, the students will need to step back and observe first, taking all measures to keep the perimeter safe.

“The first part of the operation will involve organizing everything. Before they collect any evidence or preserve any evidence, they must take photographs, write notes and sketch the scene,” Iancu said. “Because the crime scene is dynamic, your presence can change it. If you step on evidence and destroy it, that’s it.”

Unlike a classroom laboratory setting where students are sorting evidence and conducting forensic tests more as individuals, Iancu says each student will be assigned a designated role and team.

“I think this will be a more difficult case, so their organization and delegation skills will be key to solving it,” she said. “They cannot work on assumptions. They will need to think even more critically. Through thorough observation, sampling and further investigation of the forensic evidence, I hope they can collaborate to find a common thread and a possible lead.”

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