In Professor Karen Pearson’s classes, students learn chemistry through forensics

What can FIT students learn from a crime scene? According to Karen Pearson, professor and assistant chair of Science and Mathematics, the field of forensics is a compelling way to introduce students to the science they’ll need for technical roles in the creative industries.
In Crime Scene Chemistry and The Forensics of Fiber Analysis, students work together to solve problems relevant to forensics, such as how a DNA test works, how blood spatters, how to analyze color scientifically, and how to determine the lethal dose of a toxin. Along the way, they learn the scientific method: making observations, thinking critically, designing a useful experiment, and reporting their findings. They finish the class feeling empowered to learn about the chemistry and physics behind the products they create in their majors, whether it’s performance athletic gear, digital photographs, eco-friendly packaging, or age-defying face cream.
“The magic happens when the students realize there’s a connection between these fundamental chemistry concepts and their real lives,” she says.
She calls this real-world approach to science “everyday engineering”—and it’s part of the reason she’s won awards for excellence in teaching from both President Joyce F. Brown and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. With support from a grant from the National Science Foundation, she worked with Elaine Maldonado, director of FIT’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, to train faculty in teaching these curricula. Her goal is to prepare the college’s mostly female, and often science-averse, student population for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. Despite the glamorous sheen of the fashion industry, much of the work requires a science background.
“Many of these women are planning to go into technical fields,” Pearson says. “I want to empower them to contribute.”

Two examples of mock crimes that students might investigate:
(click on photos to enlarge)


Illustrations by Anita Rundles, Illustration ‘13


Featured Image: Pearson is holding a Hoberman sphere, a structure that retains its shape as it expands or shrinks. It helps students understand the flexible nature of chemical bonds and the repeating, symmetrical patterns in crystal structures. Photo Credit: Matthew Septimus