Don’t touch the crime scene, learn from it, says Shivani Lamba

19 Aug 2015

The general public’s understanding of crime scene investigations is more important than you may have thought, and that’s why educational projects like Forensic Outreach exist.

Picture two scenes. The first is a court case discussing a murder, with highly technical forensic discussions and arguments being put forward. The jury hasn’t a breeze about the nuances, struggling through the basics.

The second scene is identical in setting, but with a jury aware of the basic concepts, capable of keeping up with the train of evidence.

Which scenario appeals best? Hopefully you, like Shivani Lamba, think the latter.

A speaker at this year’s HybridConf, Lamba runs Edluminary, a start-up that specialises in the delivery of scientific public engagement.

Forensic Outreach – which was recently spun out as its own business “due to an extraordinary amount of commercial interest” – is the company’s most popular and celebrated educational initiative.

Shivani Lamba | Crime scene | CSI | Sherlock

Shivani Lamba – Forensic Outreach

“Legal experts have made numerous recommendations that people serving on juries should have at least a basic grasp of the scientific concepts at play in courtrooms,” insists Lamba, who will be discussing the science of creativity at HybridConf

Looking at how this galvanises the radical approach her team takes to formulating educational initiatives, Lamba wants to inspire people.

The CSI effect

She tells me that the existence of the ‘CSI effect’ – “a distorted public perception of the realities of forensic science due to depictions in popular media” – is contested, but education remains key.

“Ultimately, our perception of the way evidence is presented, as well as an understanding of a particular science’s strengths and weaknesses, can change the outcome of a trial. This is one part of the justice system that we can actively help to reform.”

It’s an intriguing concept, and one not new. I presumed our thirst for CSI knowledge came on the back of the plethora of crime dramas around today – the numerous CSIs, Criminal Minds, Dexter etc.

We’ve always been curious

However, Lamba’s sure it’s been bubbling under the surface for far longer, citing Song Ci’s “incredibly engaging” ancient Chinese criminal investigation manuscripts and the activities of Jack the Ripper – or even Sherlock Holmes – as other examples of our fascination with the grim, sordid nature of a gruesome crime scene.

A five-person team, Forensic Outreach’s activities include classroom teaching, museum exhibitions and even consultation on things like the hugely popular Serial podcast.

Enjoying a raft of tie-ups with organisations like the FBI, the US department of defence and the UK home office, the group’s goal is to “enrich environments”, highlighting that “science is magic”.

Forensic Outreach | Crime scene | CSI | Sherlock

Students being put through their paces

Of course, to persuade uninterested parties to come over to the science side, there’s nothing like a bit of theatre to catch the eye.

One of Forensic Outreach’s recent projects was Sleuthing with Sherlock, where guests were put to task solving a crime scene in Victorian times – in Victorian clothing, using Victorian tools – and then again using modern equivalents.

Start them young

Lamba, who holds a BSc in neuroscience (with a focus on developmental neurobiology) from University College London, is studying computer science, covering pretty much all the bases for forensic science.

“For educators, investigative scenarios are becoming increasingly popular in classrooms as problem-based learning is gaining traction,” says Lamba.

“We’ve been firmly at the forefront of a movement that integrates complex scientific concepts from biology, chemistry and physics in narrative-driven lessons to promote STEM engagement.”

Forensic Outreach has even dipped its toe into the Irish market, teaming up with an Irish travel operator to work on ways to bring projects to these shores.

These projects have some pedigree, too. The programmes – including summer schools, masterclasses and field days – have been delivered to hundreds of schools throughout the UK and Europe.

Along with its entrance into Ireland, the company is looking towards New York next year. So hopefully soon we’ll all get to dress up in 19th-century get-ups and finally catch Jack in the act.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Eircom, Fidelity Investments, ESB, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic