Northeastern Section–41st Annual Meeting (20–22 March 2006)

Paper No. 10
Presentation Time: 4:20 PM


BERGSLIEN, Elisa, Earth Sciences and Science Education, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Ave, 271 Science Building, Buffalo, NY 14222,

Forensic Geology (GES 350) is being taught at Buffalo State College for the second time this spring. The object of the course is to introduce urban students to the basic principles of geoscience through the venue of forensic investigation. The course meets weekly in three-hour long investigative sessions and is divided into a series of topics such as rocks, sand, soil, microfossils and minerals in cosmetics and paint. Each topic is introduced through pre-class readings, brief lectures, and class discussion of famous historical cases in which key evidence was geological. Students working in small groups are then given an activity in which they act as a forensic laboratory team. They receive guided hands-on experience with the tools and techniques necessary to complete their assignments, but are responsible for developing their own investigative strategies. Students are given a week to complete each exercise and they present their findings in the form of a case report.

One of the analytical tools utilized by the students is x-ray diffraction (XRD), which is one of the most powerful tools available for identification of crystalline materials. Traditionally in geology, powder XRD would be used to identify the mineral components of a soil or ash layer and this information would be used perform such tasks as identifying economic mineral deposits or determining the sources of volcanic ash layers. However, XRD can also be used as a tool for identification and comparison of certain kinds of trace evidence, which is a general term for any small piece of physical evidence that links a suspect to a crime scene. Historically XRD has been little utilized due to the expense of the equipment and the expertise needed for interpretation, however improvements in technology and the existence of large reference libraries have made XRD a much more viable tool both for teaching and forensic use.

Students have been involved in projects such as XRD analysis of soil from a suspect's boot, which was compared to soils from a crime scene to determine if they were similar in nature or very different in nature. The same principles were used to analyze minerals used in building materials, paints, and cosmetics. For example, using XRD analysis of a lipstick smear, it is possible to identify the mineral components and potentially identify the manufacturer of the lipstick.