Television shows spike interest in forensics

Popular television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have caused a spike in interest in college forensics programs, so much so that it has been dubbed the "CSI effect."

Southern Oregon University is no exception.

In 2004, instructors from criminology, chemistry and computer science set up specific forensics tracks, and students are filling up the classes.

"We sat down together and said 'Students are just hungry for this,'" said Lee Ayers, an associate criminology professor at SOU. "When it comes to the CSI effect, it can be a mixed blessing, so to speak. I think television does more advertising than we can afford to do."

Ayers' department has 37 students studying forensic criminology, and between 10 and 15 students are enrolled in the chemistry track, which just began enrolling students two years ago, according to associate chemistry professor Greg Miller. More than 200 students take introductory forensics classes in computer science, with about 10 continuing on to advanced courses, said Lynn Ackler, a computer science instructor.

When criminology professors make presentations to eighth-graders, nearly all of them prefer forensics to law enforcement or other areas of criminal justice, Ayers said.

But that interest doesn't necessarily transfer to a degree in forensics.

"Crime scene investigation on television is very different than reality," Miller said. "There's a lot of work, and it's not as glamorous as television makes it seem. A lot of times the students don't always know what they're getting into."

For instance, the job of crime scene investigators is very different from that of lab technicians, roles that television shows often combine. Students in forensics have to choose early on whether they will study chemistry, criminal justice or computer science. Many times, a challenging course such as calculus determines which path students will take, or if they will change their focus entirely, he said.

For those students who stick with forensics, the job forecast is excellent, Ayers said, especially in the area of DNA analysis, where a "forensics bottleneck" has developed because there are not enough people to process evidence.

"Certainly there are positions out there," she said. "The way we investigate is much different now. We used to rely so much on witness testimony ... now we're asking the questions to the evidence. What can we prove based on what the lab is able to tell about evidence?"

That much is evident on television, but it is only a small piece of the real world of forensics.

"There's a fine line between truth and fiction, and if we could just get them to focus a little more on the truth and a little less of the fiction, that would be great," Ayers said.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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