A class at Palo Alto College is taking students beyond the yellow police tape and offering them hands-on training in forensics and crime scene investigation.
About a half dozen students from a forensics class zipped up inside white, full body jumpsuits Friday morning for their first adventure beyond the classroom in their career field.
"Throughout the semester, they've been learning the process for collecting evidence and investigating different kinds of crime scenes," said Earl Ballou, a retired police officer who teaches forensics. “They've been given the problem that they've been called to a crime scene and that there has been a murder. And basically, that's all the information that they have."
Once inside the makeshift crime scene, students saw their “victim,” 10-year-old Elijah Parker, lying in a pool of fake blood with a realistic-looking prosthetic bullet hole on the side of his head.
Ballou said his students worked as a team in an effort to solve the murder, collecting fingerprints, examining blood spatters and talking to witnesses.
Jose Gonzalez acted as team leader for his group, and said he was taken aback by the realism of it all.
"It was pretty shocking, but at the same time, it looked more real so it looked more interesting for me to work with,” Gonzalez said.
By the end of the exercise, Gonzalez said his team had deduced that the victim was shot by someone he knew who was seated next to him. He said they found fingerprints on a glass door showing the “killer’s” escape path.
Fellow student Clara Contreras stood by watching the morning exercise, waiting for her turn to suit up. She said while her future plans include working a bit farther away from bloody crime scenes, she appreciates the hands-on experience the class offers.
"I actually want to work forensic science in the laboratory, doing the DNA and all that," Contreras said. “(The class) is a good experience so when you do get out on the field. you'll know what you're doing and it won't be new to you.”
Ballou said students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the class. This type of hands-on learning, he said, is actually part of an initiative to help the school maintain its newly awarded accreditation.
Each institution accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is required to create a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). Ballou said after Palo Alto’s accreditation was reaffirmed in June, it launched its QEP.
Part of that plan, Ballou said, includes emphasizing “problem based learning,” classes that encourage students to be more interactive.