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CSI: Elmhurst

Ricky Dingraudo, crime-scene investigator, was creeping through a bed of ankle-high pachysandra outside Schaible Science Center one afternoon last week when he found what he was looking for. There, partially hidden by the early spring foliage, was a bright white bone: A human femur, Dingraudo guessed.

It would have been an alarming discovery, if the bone hadn’t been plastic and if Dingraudo didn’t have good reason to believe it had been planted there by a couple of his professors.

Dingraudo, a first-year student from Elk Grove Village, was practicing his crime-solving skills as part of a field exercise for his Forensic Science class. He was one of 18 students from the class searching for evidence of foul play in and around the science center. Their professors, Michelle Applebee, an associate professor of chemistry, and Stacey Raimondi, an assistant professor of biology, had created three ersatz crime scenes, complete with yellow caution tape, for their students to investigate. Working in teams, the students were to sketch and photograph the scenes, collect and catalog evidence, analyze the evidence, and write a report summarizing their findings for a fictional prosecuting attorney.

“Hey, I’ll need an evidence bag here,” Dingraudo called to his teammates after discovering the bone fragment. He sounded a little like he was delivering a line from this week’s episode of “CSI: Elmhurst.” One of the lessons of the class, though, is that crime-scene investigations, as depicted on television, are often less than scientifically credible.

“Evidence isn’t processed and analyzed in three and a half minutes, like on TV,” Applebee said as she watched a group of students huddle over another bit of discovered evidence. “And the person working on the scene isn’t the same person working in the lab. Students say, ‘I want to do that job,’ but there really is no such job.”

As she spoke, her students were busy with sketch pads and tape measures, carefully documenting the scene of the crime. Already they had found a shovel, some cloth fibers and a suspicious footprint. Their next task: create a plaster cast of the print. If the objective was to be as thorough as professional investigators, the professors conceded that some corners had to be cut for practical reasons.

“You don’t get much DNA from plastic bones,” Raimondi admitted.

One of the aims of the class, being offered for the first time at Elmhurst this semester, is to introduce non-science majors to the chemistry and biology at the heart of so many criminal investigations. For a generation raised watching lab-coated cops solve crimes and deploy scientific jargon on their favorite TV police dramas, the class offers instant appeal.

“I watch way too many of those shows,” said Emily Baron, a junior from Cartersville, Georgia. “But I know they’re pretty fake.”

If there is one thing Applebee and Raimondi can appreciate about the recent spate of lab-coat TV police procedurals, it’s the way they have made heroes of scientists and the scientific process.

“They help build interest in science,” Applebee said. “They show that you can do things with science that are worthwhile.”

Applebee and Raimondi hope that the same can be said of their new class. It is one of the first in a newly developed species at Elmhurst called bidisciplinary courses. Co-taught by faculty from complementary disciplines, they focus on topics that straddle traditional academic boundaries. Raimondi, the biologist, and Applebee, a chemist, each defer to the other’s expertise, but also point their students toward links between the disciplines.

“There’s a fine line between disciplines and we want students to see how they go together,” Applebee said. “Most of the research that gets funded is not in one area or the other. You have to find the links. Everyone puts the disciplines in separate silos, but they don’t belong in silos.”

By now their students were gathering the last of the evidence from outside the science center. “We need to bag and tag,” one of them announced. Their work, however, was just beginning. Still ahead was time in the lab analyzing the evidence for clues that might point to a suspect.

“This week, they’re crime-scene investigators,” Raimondi said. “Next week, they become lab techs.”

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