'CSI' boosting in interest in forensic science in campus

Tuesday, August 19th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

MANSFIELD, Pa. (AP) _ Two of Matthew Lebeda's strongest subjects are physics and chemistry. And he always wanted to be a policeman. But he never knew those things could dovetail until he watched ``CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.''

Now he'll be combining his interests as a freshman at Mansfield University.

Chemistry labs and criminal justice programs are what's cool on campus these days, as ``CSI'' _ the nation's top-rated show last season _ and its spinoff ``CSI: Miami,'' which ranked 14th in the Nielsen ratings, have created a whirlwind of interest in forensic sciences.

Several colleges report long waiting lists for forensic science courses, and dozens of others are developing courses or entire programs in the science of crimefighting.

For Lebeda, it all came together while watching a ``CSI'' episode on CBS in which investigators burned a small piece of rope, determined the rope's chemical characteristics by analyzing the flame's color and then used that information to catch a criminal.

``I could do that,'' thought Lebeda, who will major in criminal justice and minor in forensic science.

And Lebeda wasn't the only one.

Mansfield admissions director Brian Barden said the school's admissions officers have been overwhelmed by students asking whether the university had a forensic science program. When students were asked why they were interested in forensic science, ``most of them would say, 'CSI,''' Barden said.

That's what prompted the creation of Mansfield's new forensic science minor. Similar efforts are under way elsewhere. Among them:

_ Enrollment in Baylor University's forensic science program has grown nearly tenfold since the program was started in 1999, and Pace and West Virginia universities report that forensic sciences are their fastest-growing programs.

_ Syracuse University and Chatham College are among the schools considering creating forensic science minors; the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and Hilbert College have done so.

_ The University of Baltimore has a new forensic sciences major, and Saint Louis University has a major in investigative medical sciences.

_ New graduate programs have been created at the University of California at Davis, Duquesne University, and the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Anthony Zuiker, creator of the ``CSI'' programs, himself was inspired by a TV show. When producer Jerry Bruckheimer approached him about developing a series, Zuiker said he wanted to do a forensic science program. One reason, he told The New York Times recently, was that he had just seen his wife's favorite show on the Discovery Channel: ``The New Detectives.''

The universities' programs aren't entirely about science. Some incorporate courses in criminal justice and investigative methods, and students in Towson University's new forensic chemistry program are required to take a course on testifying in court.

``We're starting to get that feedback that we're teaching the appropriate things,'' said Scott A. Davis, professor of chemistry and director of forensic science at Mansfield.

``CSI'' isn't the first show to generate interest in an academic discipline or profession. ``L.A. Law'' was widely credited with boosting law school applications in the 1980s, just as ``ER'' did for medical schools in the 1990s. More recently, such shows as ``Trading Spaces'' have fostered interest in interior design as a profession.

Max M. Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, said there's a ``dire need'' for forensic scientists, explaining that it would take 10,000 new forensic scientists to properly staff the nation's crime labs.

But with most state budgets already strained, that need might not translate into a job market.

``Let's say we graduate enough people to fill all those positions _ we can't pay them,'' Houck said. ``You have a huge need, you have a huge supply, but there's no money. And until that gets turned around, we're going to be in that situation.''

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