Developing Forensic Science Investigation Skills in Simulated Settings

Students enrolled in a Forensic Science or Investigative Function class at County College of Morris (CCM) recently were engaged in a crime scene as close to real-world as they could get through a capstone project utilizing virtual reality.

After months of classroom learning on how to approach a death scene and determine what evidence to collect, CCM students were ready for a unique lab experience called The Virtual Crime Scene Capstone project created by CCM professors.

The capstone project is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between Professor Brian Olson,

Professor Brian Olson with student

Professor Brian Olson adjusts headset during Virtual Reality Crime Scene Capstone Lab.

from the Biology and Chemistry department; Dr. Maureen Kazaba, from the Criminal Justice department; and Professor Hrvoje Slovenc, from the Art and Design department. The “Virtual Crime Scene Capstone” takes place in a new Virtual Reality Lab developed with the support of a federal Perkins Grant.

The crime scene was constructed and captured this past summer using a 360 virtual reality camera. Multiple shots using different camera settings were taken to create a stereoscopic 3D scene. Kazaba, who is a retired detective, provided the critical and real-life staging scenario.

Olson explains that the concept of the lab stemmed from Frances Glessner Lee, known as the mother of forensic science, who created the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” a series of intricately designed dioramas of death scenes. Her studies are still used today by various law enforcement agencies and in FBI training.

“Basically, Frances Glessner Lee created dollhouses of death scenes in the 1940s for teaching law enforcement how to identify evidence and determine the manner of death,” explains Olson. “What we are doing at CCM is taking a cue from Frances Glessner Lee and making studies of unexplained death inside virtual reality. Students are immersed in what an actual death scene would look like.”

Students immersed in Virtual Reality Crime Scene Lab.

Students engaged in the Forensic Science VR Crime Scene Capstone Lab.

Once students put on the 3D headsets, they are immersed in a death scene where they are to conduct an investigation in an orderly manner and determine what potential evidence should be collected. Since many of the students taking forensic science classes are criminal justice majors who desire to be police officers, the project is intended to teach them how to approach a scene without a preconceived determination of what happened. In the capstone project, they were asked to determine the manner and cause of death.

“Naturally, I cannot tell you the answer to the assignment, but one important factor in collecting evidence is you cannot go back to the death scene,” says Olson. “Not knowing the cause or manner of death, but how to approach the scene is critical. Students should not assume the manner of death. We ask the students, ‘What would you take from the scene that could serve as evidence?’”

The interdepartmental collaboration will continue during the Spring Semester with a phase two launch that will provide students with the opportunity to create their own unexplained death scenes. There is still time to register for the Spring Semester at CCM. Classes that will be part of the phase two Virtual Crime Scene Capstone project include the Photography class Narrative Storytelling in X-R, the Criminal Justice class Investigative Function and the Forensic Science class for the Spring Semester. Visit and register today.