The ‘CSI Effect’: Collaborating Forensic Science Education and Criminal Justice Education—One Criminology Program’s Experience

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico

The CSI Effect

The “CSI Effect” is a blur between reality and fiction resulting from fictionalized media portrayals of investigation and prosecution, which influences the expectations of the public, crime victims and potential jurors (Dowler, Fleming, & Muzzatti, 2006) as to the realities of DNA and forensic evidence, as well as the investigative process, roles of crime scene analysts, and investigators (Davis Bivens, & Harrington, 2010). This phenomenon stems from the popularity of criminal justice dramas (and in particular, courtroom dramas), such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law and Order, and other courtroom dramas (Shelton, 2008).

Due to the popularity of television crime dramas (i.e. CSI, Law and Order), the interest in forensics and forensic investigations is increasing. Undergraduate, non-science students have the misconception that criminal justice, criminology, and other related disciplines are appropriate curricula to prepare them for jobs in forensics and forensic investigations. In addition, many of these students do not realize that forensics is a natural science, not a social science. As such, many have unrealistic expectations of what they can do in the field of forensic investigations with a non-science, undergraduate degree. Until spring semester of 2010, there were no criminology courses at JCSU which introduced students to forensics and forensic investigations. Likewise, those natural science courses which may have included forensics within the curriculum did not include forensic investigations within the curriculum.

In the spring 2010 and spring 2011 semesters, the criminology program offered a Special Topics in Criminal Justice: Forensics for Criminology Majors course in response to the number of students majoring in criminology who expressed an interest in careers in crime scene analysis and other areas of forensic science. This course sought to introduce non-science majors to forensics and forensic investigations so that students could gain a clear understanding of forensic science and its application in law enforcement investigations.

There were two primary objectives of this course: incorporating forensics within the criminology curriculum to afford non-science majors the opportunity to understand forensics in the investigative, evidentiary, and judicial stages of criminal court processing; and increasing the number and diversity of students exposed to and educated in forensic investigations, crime scene processing, and collection of evidence.

The remainder of this article will describe the criminology program’s innovative project to incorporate natural science into the social sciences through the Forensics for Criminology Majors course.

Incorporating Natural Sciences into the Social Sciences: Forensic Science for Criminology Majors

Project Faculty Qualifications and Expertise

The criminology program was successful in recruiting and retaining an adjunct faculty member who holds a M.S. in forensic science with a concentration in investigations and is currently completing a Ph.D. in public safety with a concentration in forensic science. This same faculty member is also a full-time sworn police officer with the local police department and she previously held instructor certification through the North Carolina Criminal Justice Standards Commission. As such, she has professional experience in investigations and law enforcement operations, and is academically prepared in the area of forensic science and investigations. Her previous instructor certification prepared her in the area of curriculum development and pedagogy. Another faculty member, who assisted in the assessment and evaluation for this project holds an Ed.D. in higher education with a concentration in criminal justice, has fifteen years of curriculum development experience, program and course evaluation, student assessment, and research. This faculty member also has fifteen years of developing experiential learning projects.

Forensic Science for Criminology Majors

The Special Topics in Criminal Justice: Forensic Science for Criminology Majors course was developed to introduce non-science majors to forensics and forensic investigations so students can gain a clear understanding of forensic science and its application in law enforcement investigations. To develop this course, faculty conducted a literature review to identify best practices in teaching natural science to non-science majors. According to Arwood (2004), forensic science is an effective strategy, in and of itself, in teaching science as most scientific concepts can be taught through forensics, and students have an interest in the subject matter due to the popularity of crime dramas, etc. Arwood further posits that forensic education evokes critical thinking as it offers opportunities for interactive learning, which include problem-based and inquiry-based learning. With this information and their prior knowledge of forensics and investigations, the project faculty developed a course curriculum which introduced students to basic forensics, anatomy and physiology, investigations, and legal issues and forensics. In addition, the students’ capstone project was an experiential learning project where they processed a mock crime scene and applied knowledge from the course in the areas of: forensic investigations, basic forensic science, crime scene processing, and the collection of evidence. The project faculty chose to incorporate an experiential capstone project because experiential learning projects are effective pedagogical resources for students to develop and enhance knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as affording students the opportunity to bridge theory and practice. According to Jadallah (2000), in order for experiential learning to be meaningful, students must actively participate in a process of exploring, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information into a frame of reference that they then use to build upon prior knowledge.

Project Outcome/Assessment/Impact

Initial Assessment

As part of the course project assessment, 25 students enrolled in CRM 494 Special Topics in Criminal Justice: Forensics for Criminology Majors in the spring 2011 semester were asked to take a pre-test and post-test assessment (at the beginning and end of the semester, respectively) examining their understanding of forensics and forensic investigations. Students received a course grade for completing the activity, but the grade they received on the assessment was not reflected in their final course grades. The fifteen item instrument (developed by the project faculty and validated through the use of summative evaluation) measured a basic knowledge of forensics, investigations, legal issues and forensics, and anatomy and physiology.

The researchers utilized a Basic One Group Pre-Test/Post Test Design (n = 17). In those instances where a student did not take either the pre-test or the post-test (due to absences, withdrawal from the course, etc.), those assessments were not included in the assessment. The mean score for the Pre-Test x = 44. The mean score for the Post-Test x = 68. The project faculty then conducted a 1 Tailed, Independent T Test (3.89515E-06 = 0.00000389), and thus the findings were not statistically significant (.05). It is recognized that the sample for this analysis was minimal, and thus findings cannot be generalizable, but the authors posit that the data is valuable for course evaluation and planning.

Some individual students made drastic improvements in individual scores
While there was not a statistically significant improvement in assessment scores, some individual students did make drastic improvements in individual scores as noted in Table 1.

Reflection and Analysis

Project faculty also found a number of unintended outcomes. First, there was an increase in the faculty members knowledge, skills, and abilities in developing a non-traditional, interdisciplinary curriculum (i.e. merging content from the social and natural sciences) utilizing a formal, curriculum design. Second, faculty found their skills in developing, implementing, and analyzing learning assessment, student evaluation, and curriculum evaluation were improved. Third, the project provided an avenue for faculty to research best practices and effective pedagogy in the student learning process. Finally, non-science majors were afforded an interdisciplinary background in forensics and criminology, which introduced students to forensic science and its application in law enforcement investigations. In doing so, it also helped to make students competitive candidates in the criminal justice workforce, as they are introduced to current and relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities.


Arwood, L. (2004). Teaching biology to non-science majors through forensics, or how to design a killer course. Cell Biology Education: A Journal of Life Science Education. 3(2), 131-138.

Davis Bivens, N. & Harrington, R. (2010). Science fiction vs. real science: the influence of the ‘CSI Effect’ on the prosecution of felony cases. Journal of Criminal Justice and Law Review, 2(1-2), 69-79.

Dowler, K., Flemming,T. & Muzzatti, S.L. (2006). Constructing crime: Media, crime, and popular culture. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 4 (6), 838 – 850. doi:10.3138/cjccj.48.6.837

Jadallah, E. (2000). Constructivist learning experiences for social studies education. The Social Studies, 91(5), 221-225.

Shelton, D.E. (2008). The ‘CSI effect:’ Does it really exist. National Institute of Justice Journal 259. Retrieved from

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