Grant to help start forensic science courses

Monday, July 28, 2008

Students often have misconceptions about forensic science, Dr. Rachel Morgan Theall says.

"A lot of people think that when there's a crime there's just evidence lying around everywhere. In a case, you may only have one to two pieces," the Southeast Missouri State University chemistry professor said.

And even if there is evidence available, it may not lead detectives to the perpetrator, she said.

Forensic chemistry -- the application of chemistry to any kind of legal matter -- is gaining popularity on television. More students are asking for forensic science courses.

But few resources are available for teachers or professors who want to start a class.

With the help of a $100,000 grant, Morgan Theall hopes to change this and correct any misconceptions.

The one-year grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Morgan Theall to create teaching materials to fill gaps. It will also allow her to run workshops for middle and high school teachers next summer.

"Of the limited materials available, few have a scientific inquiry aspect," she said. And while there have been workshops in the past, Morgan Theall doesn't think they were grounded enough in chemistry. "We want to make sure the chemistry concepts are being taught as well as the forensic application," she said.

This is Morgan Theall's second time to be named a postdoctoral fellow with the National Science Foundation's Discovery Corps program. In 2005 she received a two-year grant while working as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona. She partnered with high schools in Tuscon, Ariz., to help students create exhibits for the Flandreau Science Center.

She is retaining the name of the project, "Science in the City," for her grant beginning Friday. She will not be working with individual schools this time around.

Her main goal is to disseminate information to teachers so students can "start getting interested in forensics as soon as possible." Before, students went specifically to a school with forensic courses or were trained on the job, said Morgan Theall, who joined Southeast in 2007.

While she does not yet have specific examples of how forensic chemistry can be incorporated into a chemistry class, she is excited about the possibilities.

"We want to get students prepared so they know what it takes," she said.

335-6611, extension 123

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