Bringing forensic science to the masses

Posted by a.hay on 19 May 2014 - 2:00pm

By Niamh Nic Daeid, Professor of Forensic Science at Centre for Forensic Science, University of Strathclyde.

This article is part of our series: a day in the software life, in which we ask researchers from all disciplines to discuss the tools that make their research possible.

In January the University of Strathclyde launched a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) for forensic science. The university has an excellent reputation for forensic science, both in teaching and in research. With that in mind, and helped no end by the public popularity of forensic science in TV shows such as CSI, Silent Witness and Bones, Strathclyde provided an ideal location for such a project

Our next step was to partner with Futurelearn. it is the UK's first MOOC platform, which is part owned by the Open University and currently works with 26 universities as well as the British Council, British Museum and British Library. We developed a six week Introduction to Forensic Science course, and I was very privileged to lead the team that brought the course to fruition.

Forensic science is very much a discipline of disciplines, where we use scientific knowledge, technological advances and iterative problem solving skills to address an often quite complex problem or scenario in order to determine a sequence of events. This has to be undertaken within the constraints of a legal process - with appropriate checks and balances in place to ensure the validity of the scientific techniques and the strength of the inference that can be made in light of the circumstances relating to each individual case scenario. Our mission was to convey this complexity to the MOOC’s participants without getting them lost in the science or perplexed by the legal aspects. We reverted to a well-established way of imparting knowledge: we told a story. 

Our MOOC is woven around a narrative of murder, where participants are provided with an unfolding scenario so that each week a particular aspect of forensic science is exposed. The course covers crime scene investigation, fingerprints, DNA and blood pattern analysis, firearms, tool marks, footwear marks, tyre marks and, finally, evidence of drug abuse. 

We use video material to introduce each topic, which is underpinned by a transcript and subtitles. We also provide external links to open-source materials and other appropriate media made freely available on sites such as YouTube.

Finally, we weave in some simple but fun tasks so that participants can take their own fingerprints and footwear marks, extract their own DNA and get involved in structured discussions about the specific topics. Then, of course, there is an update on the case at the end of each week to keep everyone motivated.

The final week provides an opportunity for participants to test their hypotheses and vote as a member of the jury on the guilt or innocence of the accused. We also staged three Google Hangouts where the tutors broadcast live to the participants over the Internet. We used this as a mechanism to answer questions and speak more specifically about issues raised in the online discussions and to give the course some important educator-participant interaction.

We helped our students to understand the narrative of the story by focusing on dialectic argument (with roots in the method of debate postulated by Socrates, Plato and Popper) where the beliefs held in relation to the salient points of our case were debated using reasoned argument. This was accomplished by setting some very specific questions for discussion. At the onset of the course we asked participants to address the who, what, where, when, why and how of the incident and we came back to this at the end of the course to discuss how views and perspectives may have changed using some tools along the way.

In total we had close to 27,000 people from at least 113 countries around the World sign up for the MOOC. Between them they generated nearly 65,000 comments in only six weeks and interrelated fantastically with each other to become co-creators of their own learning journey. We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our participants who found the MOOC’s blend of storytelling, activities and genuine scientific debate so totally engaging.

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