Editor’s note: Reprinted from the August 2021 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.
By Mike Kilen
Brittany Fleck studied forensic science not just because she loved TV episodes of “CSI,” though of course she did.
“I like using science to be able to bring closure for people through their darkest or saddest times, whether it’s a murder or losing a child or another devastating scenario,” she said.
Fleck graduated with a bachelor’s degree in forensic science from Grand Canyon University in April but wanted to take another educational step in the field, which applies science to law.
That’s where Dr. Melissa Beddow came in. The Associate Professor of Forensic Science had heard from colleagues around the country that an online master’s degree program in forensic science was needed – with an important twist.
“Other programs are either on ground and very hands on, or they are online and not hands-on. We are combining the best of both worlds,” said Beddow.
She went to Dr. Bina Vanmali, Assistant Dean of Sciences in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.
“One of the challenges in wrestling with this program was how we create not just another degree program, where you get a bunch of content knowledge but you don’t know how that actually works in a real-life setting,” Vanmali said. “We needed to create those experiences.”
The result is what Beddow and Vanmali believe is the first online master’s program in the country that incorporates remote lab work. It began Aug. 26.
GCU created its Master of Science in Forensic Science by partnering with Carolina Biological, a company that worked with GCU to design kits that allow students to do lab work at home.
For example, for an advanced DNA analysis course, students will get slides with dried fluids on them and, using dyes, be able to analyze them under a compound microscope also issued to students – to keep.
Another lab will include comparing fibers with chemical tests, and much more.
“We also have simulation labs where they can process crime scenes and do color spot testing on drugs, those things that are too big or impossible to send home due to safety reasons,” Beddow said.
For each lab, GCU faculty has created detailed procedures to do step-by-step lab work, and students are required to produce their work with photographs or written results, depending on the lab.
“We are known for producing highly skilled undergraduates, and there are a lot of people in the industry who are really excited about this program coming online,” Beddow said.
Beddow helped design the course with advice from an advisory board of experts from multiple states and agencies.
Forensic scientists work in crime labs and use DNA testing, firearms analysis, forensic psychology, chemical testing, drug and biological fluid analysis – any number of areas that help solve a criminal or civil case.
The field is growing. Forensic science technicians have a projected job growth rate of 14% from 2019 to 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fleck was lured to GCU because of forensic science, spurred on by a high school field trip to campus that demonstrated what students learned.
She always wanted to help people, she said, and found this avenue of science did so. She went from a self-proclaimed shy student to the president of a student club called the Forensic Science Society.
Now, she is enrolled to begin her study for a graduate degree at GCU.
“The thing that really stood out to me about this master’s program is the aspect of being able to practice more in-depth what I learned in my bachelor’s,” she said. “The master’s delves into more specifics. I want to be able to say I am an expert.”
The program not only will give undergraduates their next step in their education, it’s beneficial for working professionals already in the field who hope an advanced degree will lead to promotions.
The expansion of online education during the pandemic opened eyes to new possibilities, though science courses face hurdles with their emphasis on hands-on study.
Vanmali said GCU has cleared that hurdle with this program. Students will learn immediately applicable knowledge.
And it may inspire other online science programs.
“What we don’t want to do – and this is important – is create a degree in name but it doesn’t give them any practical application,” Vanmali said. “GCU prides itself on creating degrees where students who graduate are ready to start working immediately. We want to make sure when we put a program online that it holds true to that value.”
She said the new forensic science graduate program will be a great service nationally. “It is because of Melissa Beddow’s tireless efforts that we are going to get there this fall.”
Fleck can’t wait. For one thing, she’s excited to learn more about presenting evidence in a courtroom – and continuing at a university she has come to love.
“Being part of the GCU community and knowing everybody in it, this was meant to be,” she said.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.