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CSI Camp provides students with hands-on forensics experience

High school students from across the country got the chance to learn real-life crime scene investigation techniques this week during the University of Mississippi’s annual CSI Camp.

Coordinated by Dr. Murrell Godfrey, director of forensic chemistry at the university, 36 campers between ages 14 to 17 spent the week analyzing a realistic crime scene simulation involving a murder and a clandestine drug lab. Campers learned the proper techniques for crime scene etiquette, the proper protective equipment to wear to prevent contamination and how to document and take notes at a crime scene.

They also got hands-on experience in evidence collection, ranging from DNA samples to fingerprints to ballistics analysis and drug samples. The week culminated with a mock trial, complete with a jury, expert witnesses, attorneys and a judge.

According to Godfrey, the camp is geared toward inspiring students to pursue careers in STEM fields – science, engineering, technology and math.

“We use forensics to help bridge the gap. We’re lacking, in the United States, in the area of STEM careers,” Godfrey said. “Doing things that are fun, where students don’t realize they’re using hard sciences or math, we think we can use it as a vehicle to bring kids into the STEM field.”

For the past two out of four years of its existence, University of Mississippi’s CSI Camp has been the only program endorsed by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Students from 14 states and Canada attended the camp. Kaitlin Wong, an upcoming junior who hails from Montreal, Canada, said she chose to make the 1,349-mile journey because she was interested in learning about DNA analysis.

“Where I live in Montreal, there aren’t a lot of forensic opportunities. There was one forensic lab that works for the government, and I toured it and became very passionate about it,” Wong said. “I found the camp in Mississippi on the internet, and even though it was really far away, I thought it would be really cool to travel to the United States and learn more about it.”

A majority of the labs at the camp were led by graduate and undergraduate students in the forensic chemistry department. It’s a concept Godfrey said is beneficial not only for the campers, but also for the department.

Being able to teach bright minds about complex forensic techniques at an early age is something that will improve comprehension in collegiate-level courses, he said.

“The good thing about the camp is, we make sure our graduate students as well as our undergraduate forensic chemistry majors reach out and help us,” Godfrey said. “That also helps them in terms of understanding what they’re doing. If you can teach someone, then you really understand it.”

In addition to the AAFS, the camp was also endorsed by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the Division of Outreach and Continuing Education, the Department of Legal Studies, the CREATE Foundation, the National Center for Natural Products Research and the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Godfrey also brings in real-life forensics practitioners from across the state. Having a high number of active, expert minds in the field is something Godfrey said affirms its validity and attracts students to the university.

Luke LeBlanc, an upcoming sophomore from Lafayette, La., is one such student.

“I’ve always been inspired by TV forensics shows and I like to do good, so I thought this was a way to do that, one step at a time,” LeBlanc said. “I didn’t really think of Ole Miss as a choice for college until I came here to CSI Camp.”