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Mar 31, 2014

Professors Use Forensic Crime Scene Lab for Graduate Accounting Course

Accounting professors David Hayes and Tim Louwers set up an accounting forensics crime scene lab on the sixth floor of Zane Showker Hall to teach graduate students the process of investigating crime scenes.

If you noticed crime scene tape on the sixth floor of Zane Showker Hall in November, do not worry. The office was not an actual crime scene; rather, it was the forensics lab that Dr. David Hayes and Dr. Tim Louwers set up for their ACT 691 graduate course.

Setting up the crime scene

Hayes and Louwers recognized a need for accounting students to have an awareness of computer forensics methods, so they developed ACT 691, offered for the first time as Computer Forensics for Accountants, and assigned a crime scene investigation as a requirement for the course.  The professors procured a vacant office with a computer on the sixth floor of Showker and planted evidence throughout the room that students would need to document.

While initially setting up the office, Hayes and Louwers sought help from Kurt Plowman, Reserve Office with the Staunton Police Department and the Chief Technology Officer of the City of Staunton. Plowman does a large amount of digital forensics for the city. He was impressed by what Hayes and Louwers had come up with on their own, but he suggested some additional pieces of evidence for the crime scene.

“Their crime scene was as good or better than crime scene setups used for training at many police academies, and it was a great opportunity for students to put their classroom lessons to use,” said Plowman.

The investigation

The students had 30 minutes to investigate the office and find and document anything that seemed out of the ordinary. Each piece of evidence the professors planted is referred to as an “easter egg,” which is a technical term for a deliberately hidden item.

“I think the biggest lesson I learned while doing the project was that attention to detail meant everything,” said Jesse Everiss, a student who participated in the crime scene investigation. “As a team, we had to work as efficiently as possible to try and find all the possible incriminating evidence during the allotted time.”

According to students, this hands-on approach to teaching computer forensics methods was helpful in reinforcing the process they were learning in classroom lectures.

“We were being filmed so we really had to think things through before acting to ensure the proper chain of custody was maintained and evidence was not accidentally altered in the process,” said Ryan Bram, another student who investigated the crime scene.

The importance of the crime scene

In creating the forensics lab, Hayes and Louwers were moving toward the concept of a “flipped classroom,” in which the students teach themselves and the professors supplement the learning with hands on activities to solidify what the students learned.

“It is hands on,” said Hayes. “It is a good reinforcement for what we talk about in class.”

The crime scene was especially important because it taught students real world concepts that they could potentially encounter in their professional lives.

“From a forensic perspective most evidence now is not paper documents but moving to computers, so students need to have an awareness of it,” explained Louwers. “I’ve done some of these before and have a presentation for the students but sitting through it versus going through the process is different.”

The professors are working on a forensic accounting track for students, so there were already fraud prevention and detection classes in place. However, Hayes and Louwers could not find the time in the existing courses to add the crime scene assignment, so they offered ACT 691 as Computer Forensics for Accountants for the first time.

Hayes submitted the crime scene assignment with footage to a conference and was accepted to present it in late March. The presentation will take place in the Forensic and Investigative Accounting section of the American Accounting Association. Students will be able to take the course and investigate the crime scene again in Fall 2014.

Click here for a video clip of a group of students investigating the crime scene lab.

By Alix Carlin (Communication studies, ’14)



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