Virtual CSI – SEET Develop Forensic Chemistry App


No shades and cheesy one liners here: the forensic app team show of their great work (from left to right): Oleg Estrin, Brad Harrison, Sheila McCarthy, Dale Hansen, and Michael Speirs.

The Science, Environment, Engineering and Technology (SEET) Team have created something pretty special for students of the Drug and Forensic Analytical Chemistry course – it’s a Forensic Chemistry App.

TV shows like CSI have influenced people’s perceptions about the forensic sciences and increased interest in courses dealing with the subject. But watching Horatio Caine slide on his sunglasses to pronounce a slick one-liner about a victim who tried to defend himself with a pencil proving ‘his efforts were… pointless’, does not an accurate portrayal of crime scene investigation provide.

Bradley Harrison, Web Applications Developer and Programmer with Learning and Teaching, Information Services, told me that the Forensic Chemistry App was born out of a need to increase student engagement: when it came down to the coursework, some students had trouble connecting with disparate content and needed something to bind it all together.

The app works like this: pattern markers (human-compatible QR codes) are placed in a lab that simulates a particular crime scene. Students add themselves to groups, assign roles and read through police reports and other data sources (like an Evidence Manual, a Virtual Sample Kit and an Instrument Manual) to get a feel for the crime that has occurred. They process the scene by finding the pattern markers, scanning them into the Forensic App and selecting appropriate collection techniques.

Collecting evidence – the virtual way.


The panel of collected evidence


Initial police and witness reports.

Twenty-four hours after a successful collection, students are given access to lab results, a coroner’s report, witness and suspect statements, and a piece of physical evidence. Using a Learning@Griffith wiki, students post findings of their analysis. These analyses, in conjunction with the information discovered during the crime scene processing, lead students to write reports outlining who they believe committed the crime and how the evidence proves it.

I asked Brad if there were any challenges to creating the app.

‘There were so many,’ he said. ‘This was our first mobile application and our vision of what was possible was simply too much for the device to handle.’ To make sure that the app would be available on both Windows and Mac platforms, the production team chose to create the program using Adobe Flash. After addressing multiple performance issues, Brad says the team are happy with their finished product; ‘it looks and feels very close to a native mobile application, while at the same time allowing desktop users to experience it from their own perspective.’

Dr Gretel Heber, Research Fellow with the QLD Micro- and Nanotechnology Centre, worked together with SEET to create the app for students. She was one of the first to trial the app and says that it’s fun, addictive and challenging. ‘It taps into that competitive streak – you have to complete tasks correctly before you can progress to the next stage. It keeps you interested as there is a story running through it all and you want to find out what happens next: Who is the victim? Who committed the crime? Why? How? It also gives you a context for the course: the work you do in the lab can be critically important to someone and you have to make sure you give them the right answer.’

Gretel also said that developing the resources for the app, like the character profiles, was a lot of fun. ‘I think it looks smart, works well and allows more flexibility than if the scenario was not in an electronic format. I also found the app easy to use even though I don’t have much experience with iPads!’

SEET’s Forensic Chemistry App is the first mobile Learning and Teaching resource that is specifically tied to course material and provides a unique student experience. I wonder what Horatio would have to say about that?

I say it’s a pretty fantastic resource for our Students. The Forensic Chemistry App is running for the first time this semester.

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