Students are blooded at the 'house of crime'

January 16, 2004

Cumbria may have lower than average crime figures, but forensic science students at the University of Central Lancashire never want for practical hands-on experience of dealing with a brutal murder.

In fact, the catalogue of "crimes" committed on a regular basis in and around the university's scenes of crime house, innocuously named Cow Pasture Cottage, on its Newton Rigg campus, make it the ideal learning tool for students practising evidence gathering.

Whether it is a blood smear (horses' blood is used), semen stains (bulls' is used) or fingerprints, students must follow proper procedures in gathering and analysing evidence found at the fabricated crime scenes.

The university boasts one of the country's leading forensic science centres. It offers a range of courses, including a foundation degree in forensic science offering a hands-on approach to evidence gathering.

The cottage, formerly the home of a farm worker, is set up by staff to test students' abilities in evidence gathering across a range of crimes from burglary to rape and murder. There are four crimes being investigated at the cottage at any one time.

There are no bodies lying around but there are plenty of clues for the students to find, identify, record, log and analyse. A few red herrings are also planted by the part-time crime investigation lecturer, who is a full-time crime scene investigator for Cumbria Police.

Students are expected to work quickly and accurately to rule out possible red herrings. For example, a smear on the window could be blood but it could also be varnish, so they must learn the simple on-the-spot test to establish if it is blood.

There are also footprints that can provide evidence, and sometimes they are every bit as accurate as a fingerprint. The students are trained to look for tiny hairs and fabric threads that can be sent for lab analysis.

When they have collected all the evidence, they must log it and produce the sort of report that would be required in court by an expert witness.

Nigel Smith, course leader in forensic science, said that the key was making it as real as possible to give the students the best possible chance of securing a job in what is an increasingly competitive field.

Mr Smith said: "We try to simulate the things as accurately as possible.

For example, we can't use human blood, but horses' is just as good. The idea is that students won't be fazed by such things when they start work."

He said that the rise in the number of forensic science courses across the country meant that the number of graduates was likely to outnumber job opportunities.

That is why the Central Lancashire foundation degree was designed to incorporate transferable skills, including giving students a grounding in biology and chemistry, that will allow graduates to work at crime scenes, back in the lab or even in other areas such as food technology and in hospital laboratories.

Getting the right sort of people on the course in the first place is important. He said: "Most of those who come on our course have a reasonable idea of what forensic science is already about. Most of those who have watched Quincy on TV a few times and then think it would be a good idea to apply are weeded out."

The foundation degree, currently in its second year, has attracted about 30 students in total. Some 60 per cent of these are school-leavers and 40 per cent are mature students. The numbers of men and women are split evenly. It is delivered in conjunction with Preston College and with Wigan and Leigh College.

Having completed their foundation degrees, students can go on to do a full BSc (Hons) degree in forensic science at Preston, the university's main campus where its Centre for Forensic Science is based.

The foundation course is already becoming well known outside Cumbria. A student from South Africa is hoping to enrol on the next course, and a policeman from the Seychelles has inquired about a place for this year.

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