Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Implementation and Growth of an International Online Forensic Science Graduate Program at the University of Florida

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Implementation and Growth of an International Online Forensic Science Graduate Program at the University of Florida

Article excerpt

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Forensic science education has evolved as an interdisciplinary science that includes medicine, chemistry, biology, and criminal justice. Therefore, multiple paths can lead to a career in forensic science. A formal education usually requires the student to attend a college or university to obtain a bachelor's or master's degree. In many cases, professionals working in the field of forensic science have a bachelor 's degree in a natural science and learn hands-on, in an operational laboratory, the skills necessary to perform the required tasks applied in a forensics laboratory. To advance their knowledge or obtain a master's degree, students would traditionally have to put their career on hold to attend a college or university. Because forensic scientists are in high demand in the United States and around the world, the international Forensic Science Distance Education program at the University of Florida takes a novel approach to provide the theoretical knowledge necessary for a master's degree, enabling students to stay on the job and in touch with the practical application of their discipline. This article introduces the program and its application to college distance education programs in the natural sciences.

The interdisciplinary nature of forensic sciences is exemplified by the different career paths that lead to practicing in the field. Whereas medical examiners and coroners enter the field with a medical educational background, analytical chemists and biologists apply their scientific skills learned through chemistry and biology degrees in forensic toxicology and DNA analysis techniques. The identification of decomposed bodies is mainly done by anthropologists, whereas the newer fields of environmental forensics and computer forensics are investigated by chemists and engineers. This diverse background of disciplines has created some discrepancies in regulation and standards that have been applied on both the local and national level.

The integrity of forensic sciences and the reliability of analytical techniques leading to the conviction of a suspect with legal implications have been discussed and criticized in the past years. Because of the lack of a national standard for forensic science education, regulation and oversight of both the initial academic training of new forensic scientists as well as the need for continuing education in the field are now being called for by the National Research Council in its recent publication, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (NRC 2009). Although several programs specifically tailored toward the needs of the various disciplines and specialties of forensic sciences have been established, there is yet no oversight of what should be the national standards for such programs.

In addition, the need for judges and lawyers to understand and utilize the expert witness opinion of a forensic scientist is being widely debated. It has been questioned if the legal institutions are well enough educated to differentiate between various methods and analysis presented in court as evidence for a conviction. In other words, does a fingerprint analysis provide the same degree of confidence in the data as a genetic profile? Therefore, the overall establishment of a federal accreditation institution has been called for that establishes guidelines for both undergraduate and graduate education as well as continuing training for professionals already on the job or related to law enforcement.

Influence of distance education on teaching approaches

The integration of modern teaching techniques over the last decade has had a significant influence on how higher education is conducted today. Whereas a traditional classroom setting is the primary approach to undergraduate education, especially in the social and economic sciences, graduate degrees are more frequently offered either as a mixture of classroom and online courses or entirely online as distance education (Kassop 2003). …

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