Slumped onto a table while still seated in her chair at Converse College’s Sneakers Cafe, Kristina Blanchard looked eerily like a real murder victim – motionless, ghostly white complexion, large contusion under her eye and dried blood on her face.
Blanchard, a 2008 Converse graduate, was acting, but the 18 high school students investigating the “crime scene” Thursday were all business.
It was all part of CSI Converse, a weeklong residential summer workshop that lets 18 high school students explore the world of forensic science. Chosen by Converse faculty through an application process, the rising 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders hail from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Alabama.
The program is in its second year under the direction of Sheri Strickland, assistant professor of chemistry at Converse, and Neval Erturk, assistant professor of biology. The highlight, no doubt, was the staged murder scene.
The students, unaware of what awaited them when they arrived at the Montgomery Student Center, were split into groups and given different tasks, including interviewing witnesses, collecting and analyzing evidence, sketching and photographing the scene and handling media relations.
Erturk said such an experience is invaluable for going beyond what can be learned “cook book” style in the classroom and lab only. “In a real-life setting, they can learn to apply their skills into a real situation,” Erturk said.
“In the lab, I can only teach them biology methods, and (Strickland) would only teach them chemistry methods. But when we work together on a case, they see how the disciplines work together. They need to know (both) in order to solve these crimes, so they learn the science in its wholeness.”
Thursday’s murder scene was a collaborative effort with Converse’s summer Theatre Workshop, led by theater professor Brent Glenn and teaching assistant Brittani O’Hare, who created the storyline, set the scene and made up Blanchard to look so convincingly dead.
Working in the lab in the morning, Strickland and Erturk acted out a telephone argument, which the students believed was real, involving a “confrontation” between Blanchard and fellow teaching assistant Clay Lewis – whom Strickland claimed was her nephew – over a supposed grant for which they had applied.
Later, Erturk told the students there had been an “incident” on campus, and they were going over to check it out. Upon arrival at the student center, they were met by “police officer” Heather Mallory – actually a Converse rising sophomore – who taped off the crime scene featuring Blanchard as the victim. Students immediately began questioning Mallory and other witnesses, including actual local media, then gathered evidence that was placed at the scene by Glenn and O’Hare. Later, they were able to analyze the evidence in the lab and try to solve the crime.
“Here you’re able to actually do hands-on with the people and feel like you’re really helping them, and just helping the victims to speak when they can’t say the words themselves,” said Kortney Schumann, a rising sophomore at Chapman High School who said she applied for the workshop because she would like to pursue a career in forensic fieldwork.
Strickland said this is an exciting way for students to learn and for faculty to create innovative ideas. “One of the great values of a college this size is that we know each other well. And we can just get together and someone comes up with an idea and someone else builds on it,” Strickland said. “It’s so much fun to be in a group of people with such different backgrounds that can generate composite ideas that I don’t think any of us could come up with on our own.”
And the answer to the mystery? It was Strickland committing the murder, having recommended Lewis for the grant, and becoming enraged when Blanchard received it instead.
***This article appeared in the June 13th edition of the Spartanburg Herald Journal and was written by Gary Glancy***