Clued in at COSI
The hard-rock theme music from the TV show Crime Scene Investigation-commonly known as CSI-plays as visitors enter a small, darkened theater area at COSI Columbus. Once they are seated, Gil Grissom, the CSI supervising officer played by actor William Petersen, begins to explain (via video) that three
homicides have occurred. Grissom informs visitors to the exhibit, "CSI: The Experience," that they have been assigned to investigate the cases.
"Document everything," he counsels. "Let the clues guide you. Listen to what the evidence is saying."
With that, the guests file into one of three rooms, each set up as a crime scene: In "A House Collided," a dead man sits in a car that has crashed through a living room; in "Who Got Served?" a lifeless woman is sprawled in an alley with tire tracks over her torso; and in "No Bones About It," a partially unearthed skeleton lies in a desert. Such scenarios are standard fare for the CBS series in which investigators solve crimes using the tiniest pieces of evidence-a drop of blood, a hair, an insect.
With "CSI: The Experience"
continuing at COSI through Labor Day, the investigators are often families
working together on clues obtained at each scene.
On a recent weekday, dozens of youngsters gave the exhibit a thumbs-up, solving crimes and learning about forensic science as they passed through. (Visitors can solve one investigation per admission. Each additional crime scene costs $5.) "I really liked it," said Duncan Seibert, 11, of Fort Wayne, Ind. He came to the museum with two sisters, his parents and grandmother while on vacation in Columbus. "It's a lot better than the (forensic science) camp I went to last summer." Keara Seibert, Duncan's 17-year-old sister, was also impressed with the exhibit. "It was a lot better than I expected," she said. "It was pretty cool."
Targeted to fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, the exhibit had to strike the right balance: Its scenes couldn't be too grisly yet still needed to hold out possibilities for crime-scene investigation. (Mannequins are used as bodies, and no graphic depictions of violence are included.) "We were very sensitive to death and to the kind of trauma that happens in real crime scenarios, so we downplayed that," said Charlie Walter, chief operating officer of the Fort Worth (Texas) Museum of Science and History, the exhibit creator. "But we knew we had to be true to science. It was a matter of how we could tastefully engage in forensic science."
To help visitors solve the crimes, each room provides chances to perform different types of forensic investigation such as how to test a hair sample for DNA; dust surfaces for fingerprints and run them through a database looking for matches; perform toxicology screenings; and examine ballistics. Along the way, several real-life forensic scientists offer direction via flat-screen televisions.
"It makes science very approachable," Walter said. "The process of scientific inquiry is the process in which we question our world. That is the same thing a criminologist does when he sits down to solve a crime."