High School Students Crack a Case as Part of the Summer Honors Program at the Robert E. Cook Honors College at IUP

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High school students from across the country participate in the CSI course at IUP Cook Honors College Summer Honors Program, a unique opportunity to experience what life as a crime scene investigator would be like.

The gruesome discovery of a charred body and a missing professor created a CSI for high school students enrolled in the Robert E. Cook Honors College at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Summer Honors Program July 13-26.

The charred remains of fictitious professor John Porter were discovered in a burned-out car at the Indiana County Fire Academy in nearby Center Township July 19. Porter's whereabouts had been unknown since July 17, and his estranged wife reported him missing two days later.

To crack the case, the students first learned the protocols crime scene investigation and then applied what they learned to Porter's case.

IUP chemistry professor John Woolcock and Indiana County coroner Mike Baker led teams of students through the scenario.

The students found no shortage of suspects or motives as they sifted through evidence gathered from interviews and the analysis of crime scene materials.

"We go to the crime scenes like real investigators," said Christina Searfoss, of Throop, PA, and a senior at Mid Valley High. "We even went to a judge's office for a search warrant for the professor's office."

Vanessa Spamer, of Downingtown, PA, and a junior at Downingtown East High School, appreciated the real-life experience.

"Details are everything," she said. "He may be held hostage. He may be dead or alive. We don't know."

Woolcock led the students in a drug analysis of the missing professor's coffee.

"We found caffeine in the coffee, of course, but it also contained the drugs Valium and Adarol," said Woolcock, who has taught chemistry at IUP for 22 years.

The student investigation focused on four suspects including the graduate student who owned the burned-out car, a janitor, Porter's wife and one of her co-workers.

Students viewed an autopsy, used scientific methods and research, established motives and opportunity, interviewed suspects and applied critical-thinking skills during the two-week investigation.

"They are really interested," said Baker. "They see the demonstrations and how a real investigation works."

On Day 10, explosives-detection canines and arson investigators from the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia divisions of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms aided the students and demonstrated what their job entails.

The student detectives called the Allegheny County fire marshal and his accelerant-detection canine to investigate and secure evidence. These officials taught the students proper investigative techniques including proper documentation with photographs and hand-drawn diagrams. The canine also found traces of an accelerant in the graduate student's trashcan.

"It's challenging to work on this case," said Nia Bradford, of Philadelphia and a senior at Abington High School. "We have a timeline and suspects, but we still don't know if the professor is alive or dead."

Kaitlin McChesney, of Pittsburgh, and a sophomore at Shaler High School, appreciated the challenges the case presented.

"Right now, we've got our leads but need more information," she said, "but we need the lab results" to provide direction for the investigation and narrow the list of suspects.

Late in the second week, DNA tests identified the charred remains as John Porter's, turning the case into a murder investigation.

Based on this evidence, students narrowed their investigation to the graduate student and the janitor. The janitor, who students noticed to have a bandaged arm, was treated at the emergency room for a cut during the time-frame of the murder.

During follow-up questioning, the janitor said he murdered the professor for requiring him to work and miss his granddaughter's kindergarten graduation. With their investigation closed, students learned how to conduct an arrest.


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