Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Trevor Stamper, Entomology
"If you’re not doing verifiable, empirical science, you’re not doing science. When looking at example cases, I ask students, ‘What are the observations and explanations? What can we have full confidence in? How do we take this apart?’ That is the scientific method." - Trevor Stamper
Profiles in Teaching focuses each month on an individual whose work reflects Purdue Agriculture's commitment to learning.
About the Professor
How many cockroaches are in a bar of chocolate? If you are a student of Trevor Stamper, director of forensic sciences and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at Purdue, you might need to know.
Knowing the Food and Drug Administration's standards on what percentage of a food item can contain insects is something Stamper's students research in his Forensic Investigation class.
"Everyone usually gets very disgusted," Stamper said. "I'll bring in peanut butter, pizza and ketchup—they just run in fear. Interestingly, most have no problem looking at dead bodies or dealing with decomposing stuff, but when I tell them what's actually in ketchup, they freak out."
This exercise is one of many ways Stamper teaches students about forensic analysis. In a lab, students investigate a box of raisins using calcofluor white, which makes mold and insect parts fluoresce. His Forensic Investigation course complements Forensic Analysis by showing students the procedures and techniques a forensic scientist would use to investigate a crime scene.
These two classes are among the requirements for the minor in forensic science at Purdue. Stamper rebooted this program in 2013 as a logical application of his master's degree in anthropology at New Mexico State University and his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati in biology; he focused on species identification of entomological material found on decomposing bodies. Purdue is one of a small number of universities offering a forensics program through an entomology department.
Stamper teaches exclusively undergraduates in his forensic entomology classes. This feature is strategic, he says.
"It's so we can teach students who don't know much about science what can be classified as science," Stamper said. "We literally start out with things like, 'What is observation?' and 'How do you know you can trust it?' And once they understand what can and can't be trusted in observation, they learn how to find an explanation and how they know to trust that."
From there, Stamper teaches students how to operationalize and test explanations, another important concept in crime scene analysis and forensic entomology.
"The broad message is that science is the way you discover things," he said. "It's even broader than that—our government has defined expert-witness testimony as equating to the scientific method. The way the government has defined how they know facts to exist is through science. In doing this type of work, you have to know how to do science."
Stamper redesigned forensics classes in the minor to be lab-based. Students complete about one lab per week.
"I think that in forensic science, and in any science, really, it's vital that students get their hands on it, and get to see it, practice it, and feel it," he said. "With forensics, that's nice and visceral."
Lab sessions in forensics range from mapping out the classroom—teaching students how to take accurate measurements—to investigating "crime scenes," which are fabricated outside Smith Hall. Skills learned in that process include setting a perimeter and documentation zone, photographing and sketching scenes, lifting fingerprints, and analyzing blood spatter.
Much of the instruction in Stamper's classes relies on discussions rather than solely lectures in order to engage students and get them involved with the topics.
"The students that you wouldn't expect, sometimes, come up with the most incredibly insightful reflections," he said. "And they all have different backgrounds, which is nice. I think it's great when students ask lots of questions."
Above all, Stamper constructs his courses in ways he believes drive home his core message to students.
"I want my students to take from the class a good understanding of science," he said.
By Emma Hopkins
Purdue Agriculture Teaching Profiles are written by students majoring in Agricultural Communication.