Lawrence Kaplan, professor of chemistry, presented a talk entitled “Chemistry and Crime: From Sherlock Holmes to Modern Forensic Science” at the Faculty Club on April 26. Kaplan’s lecture was a part of the Faculty Research Luncheon Series for Staff.
Kaplan began by discussing the chemistry class for non-majors that he teaches at Williams, which is also titled “Chemistry and Crime: From Sherlock Holmes to Modern Forensic Science.” The course material explores the world of forensics through scientific material, legal issues and most importantly laboratory exercises. During lab periods, students investigate, process, collect and analyze evidence from simulated crime scenes, which include drug busts, assaults and hit-and-runs.
According to Kaplan, his class also serves as a “unique step for non-science people.” Such a course offers students an alternative to Division III classes often referred to as “rocks for jocks” or “physics for poets,” he said.
Kaplan’s forensics course has generated a great deal of national attention as a result of a growing interest in the realm of forensic science. “Many are thinking in terms of ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,’ a CBS television drama,” said Kaplan.
Along with several colleagues, Kaplan has developed “ [an] interactive multimedia instructional tool for forensics” known as Project Sherlock, which was developed with a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Kaplan discussed the details, features and benefits of Project Sherlock during the remainder of his one-hour presentation. “Project Sherlock gives students the opportunity to learn [more about forensics while], practicing [numerous] scientific and investigative laboratory procedures,” he said.
Project Sherlock simulates a variety of crime scenes for students to explore and scrutinize. The computer program allows a student to comb the scene of a crime, picking up critical evidence such as bullets, and examine the evidence through the use of sophisticated computer-generated equipment. For instance, Project Sherlock offers the simulation of a high-powered microscope, with which students glean details from the evidence. The advanced graphical capabilities of this program allow students to see various details that may not be easily visible in a lab setting, such as a bullet coming down the barrel of a gun.
Project Sherlock is divided into three sections: the crime scene, the laboratory and the academy. The laboratory enables each student to closely examine any evidence that has been gathered by performing different experimental measures, including blood analysis and DNA fingerprinting. The student takes note of any developments that may help him or her successfully solve the case. The academy offers different tutorials that teach students how to properly inspect a crime scene. Frequent crime scene and investigation “updates” and audio explanations also guide a student through the program.
Project Sherlock has been created to be “as realistic as possible; it enables the student to make the mistakes, which is one of the beauties of a computer [program like this],” said Kaplan. Audience members expressed amazement at the program’s lifelike graphics.
The purpose of Project Sherlock is twofold. First, the computer program permits students to survey the world of forensics, especially if they do not have access to a lab. Project Sherlock also teaches students to properly research and probe evidence in a lab setting.
For professors who choose to use Project Sherlock in the classroom, the program’s features cut down on the amount of time spent on discussion and allow students to gain the necessary hands-on experience required for forensic investigation.
Once students have fully examined the crime scene and the evidence, Kaplan requires them to write a short report and answer a series of questions summarizing what they have discovered and conclusions drawn from the analysis of the evidence. Ultimately, students try to solve the crime committed. Time did not permit Kaplan to show how a student solves the crime after the evidence is collected, but he noted that this was a newly added feature to the program.
Following Kaplan’s introduction to Project Sherlock, he opened the floor to questions. Two audience members asked about the procedural methods of forensics, while another asked whether or not a student would be able to use Project Sherlock from home or download it onto a laptop.
Kaplan explained that Project Sherlock can currently only be accessed through his personal server and that students are unable to take the program home. In time, Kaplan hopes to publish a CD-ROM version for public consumption. In the meantime, he has sent several pieces of the program to his colleagues for use in the classroom. He touted Sherlock’s flexibility, emphasizing that it can be used to simulate biology, forensic or organic chemistry labs.
Kaplan hopes to fully complete Project Sherlock by the end of this year, although it has already gained national interest. The American Society of Crime Lab Directors plans to adopt this program for training purposes. At the end of Kaplan’s presentation, many were eager to try Project Sherlock out for themselves.
Kaplan’s talk was sponsored by the dean of the faculty’s office, the WilliamsScene Advisory Board and Dining Services. The Faculty Research Luncheon for Staff, which is held five times a year, provides College staff with a forum for learning and understanding faculty research. Past speakers include Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College ; Edward Burger, professor of mathematics and Robert Jackall, professor of sociology.