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Academic Programs Gear up to Meet Rising Interest in Forensic Science

April 25, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 17

Many science fans would complain that Hollywood has long given scientists a bum rap--they are usually portrayed as obsessive, arrogant, or even downright evil. But thanks to a recent glut of forensic-themed television shows, at least one field of science is benefiting from an image makeover.

Colleges and universities across the country have seen a surge in applicants who want to build a career in forensic crime solving. Demand is generating supply, and more educational institutions are starting up dedicated forensic science programs.

"I'd say the number of programs has probably tripled in the past five years," says Charles Tindall, chair of the chemistry department and director of the 30-year-old forensic science program at Colorado's Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Currently, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) counts 55 U.S. academic institutions offering a bachelor's degree with a forensic science concentration, including 18 programs that are housed in chemistry departments. Nine of these schools also offer master's-level programs, and an additional 70 schools on the AAFS list only offer forensics master's.

According to Tindall, the number of programs will continue to rise to accommodate what he calls "tremendous interest" from students nationwide. "As an example, we were the only forensics program in Colorado for many years, but now there are two more operating and another in the works," he says.

Max M. Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, Morgantown, says his school started its program in 1999 with only four students. It has since grown to nearly 400 students--the most popular major on campus.

To ensure that quality accompanies the rise in quantity, AAFS started the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) in 2003. Programs that seek accreditation must complete a self-evaluation and arrange a site visit to show that they meet certain standards identified by a National Institute of Justice guide on forensic science education and training.

To date, FEPAC has issued accreditation to 10 schools and is working on the 2005 applications. The accreditation standards allow for variations in how a program is administered, but require a stronger base in the sciences--especially chemistry--than traditional forensics curricula have incorporated.

"Forensic science programs used to be looked down on by crime lab directors," Tindall says. Too many of the programs didn't cover science at all, so labs were more interested in hiring candidates with undergraduate science degrees.

"Our program offers the same thing as a basic science degree," Houck says. "A graduate should be able to do any job a B.S. in chemistry could."

Even with such standards in place, an undergraduate degree in forensic science might not be the best path for everyone. Tindall recommends that undergraduates who think they want to go on to graduate school choose a chemistry or biochemistry undergrad major and look for a master's program in forensics.

"The big advantage for people in a program like mine will be finding internships," Tindall says. Specialized undergraduate programs often have connections with people working in the field and offer internship and networking opportunities that might not accompany a pure science degree.

The real mystery is whether enthusiastic new forensics degree-holders will find work in their chosen field, given forensic science's historic lack of funding combined with a possible overload of job seekers.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors estimates that crime labs will need 10,000 new forensic scientists over the next decade to address their case backlog, a need that should be easily met by the projected wave of graduating students.

"The number of programs existing will likely provide an excess of candidates for these jobs--but this is a good thing," Tindall says. "Labs will have plenty of qualified candidates to choose from."



Academic Programs Gear Up To Meet Rising Interest In Forensic Science

Forensic scientists tell how they help solve crimes using a variety of analytical techniques


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