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A class like ‘CSI,’ but realistic

June 27, 2024
by Angela Valden and Grace Mahon '26

The floor of Glotzbach Atrium in the Billie Tisch Center for Integrated Sciences was cordoned off with yellow police tape – replica skeletal remains, pieces of clothing, and other “evidence” scattered across four quadrants of a grid. Students looked on with curiosity, awaiting instructions from Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kathryn Baustian.

In groups of five, the students were to map their respective scenes on graph paper, noting the exact position of every item in their square. They then bagged the evidence, labeling each bone to create a “skeletal inventory.”

The mock crime scene in Baustian’s Forensic Anthropology: Bones, Bodies, and Trauma course mimics an authentic forensic experience.

“We just scratch the surface of how to analyze a crime scene and collect evidence, but students get a taste of it, and they see that it’s not like TV,” said Baustian. “They see how much effort goes into the process of collecting the remains and associated evidence, and they learn how to document everything, which is really important.”

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kathryn Baustian

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kathryn Baustian provides guidance during a mock crime scene exercise in the Billie Tisch Center for Integrated Sciences’ Glotzbach Atrium.

The class is an introductory course for forensic anthropology studies at Թϱ. Through readings, lecture and discussion activities, group research projects, and a number of lab activities, students learn about the roles and responsibilities of forensic anthropologists, how to analyze and measure skeletal remains - including for age, biological sex, stature, ancestry, pathologies, and trauma – as well as the processes and methods that go into creating a biological profile that could be used in solving a missing persons case or any crime involving decomposed or skeletonized remains.

It’s just one of many examples across campus of Թϱ’s creative curriculum and ways in which Թϱ’s faculty in every major offer exciting learning experiences.

“This course is a really interesting way to combine my interest in archaeology and anatomy within the anthropology major,” said Francis Davies ’26. “It’s very engaging and hands-on.”

Mock crime scene

Students work in groups during a mock crime scene exercise in the Billie Tisch Center for Integrated Sciences’ Glotzbach Atrium.

Baustian also brought a racial justice lens to the course this past spring, inspired by Թϱ’s Racial Justice Teaching Challenge
 
The class read the 2022 book “We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys” by Erin H. Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist who participated in a multi-year study and project that excavated remains of boys who died while at the Dozier School for Boys in the panhandle of Florida.

“The school was in operation for just over 100 years and closed in 2011, but there was a long history of abuse and ill treatment of many of the boys who were at the reform school as part of the judicial system,” Baustian said. “Because they were often from poor backgrounds, their families couldn’t always pay to have the bodies shipped back home. Other times, it seems like there was some abuse and illicit behaviors that the school wanted to cover up, so they wouldn’t clearly document where the bodies were buried.”

Students discuss and analyze the reading, which recounts how the boys were treated and how their remains were located, excavated, and ultimately identified. Some of their families were able to finally learn the truth and have their loved ones’ bodies returned.

“It’s a very sad story, but it brings into the course elements of history, the Deep South, the economic situation, Jim Crow era segregation, and racial prejudice and violence,” Baustian said. “So many different topics come together, all under the umbrella of forensic anthropology.”

In that way, the research-intensive course – which fulfills both social science and humanistic inquiry requirements – stands out.

“You can learn so much about people from long ago when you dig into archives and paperwork,” Davies said. “I like cultural anthropology because I like talking to people and I love oral histories. I think they’re one of the most personal and compelling pictures of the past that there is.”

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