With help from instructor Elizabeth Hirsh, right, forensic-anthropology students Lawanda Jones-Streeter, center, and Shyanne Ruffin use sifters to help
With help from instructor Elizabeth Hirsh, right, forensic-anthropology students Lawanda Jones-Streeter, center, and Shyanne Ruffin use sifters to help them find smaller pieces of bone or other evidence in an exercise designed to give them a taste of real-world investigations. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

AURORA — Within a perimeter of yellow crime-scene tape, several figures knelt over a shallow grave, slowly, meticulously brushing away loose dirt from a human skull. Inside, they found a bullet.

Others combed the scene carefully, marking tire tracks, footprints, cigarette butts and cartridge casings that might contain clues connected to the buried remains.

And yet the atmosphere, lightened by the smell of burgers and hot dogs being grilled nearby, leaned more toward fun than funereal. The simulation on the site of Community College of Aurora brought together students from multiple academic areas eager to solve the puzzling disappearance of the fictional Sarah Hopewell.

Elizabeth Hirsh, left, gives archaeology students their instructions before they begin to measure a pretend grave site on the Community College of Aurora
Elizabeth Hirsh, left, gives archaeology students their instructions before they begin to measure a pretend grave site on the Community College of Aurora CentreTech campus. Weaving together a scenario of a murder investigation, students from several classes studied the area March 17. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

"The goal is to have them experience the subject, not just learn about the subject," said Elizabeth Hirsh, anthropology coordinator and lead organizer of the exercise. "We try to come up with innovative lessons that help connect a subject like anthropology to real-world things."

The mystery involves her archaeology students, who unearth evidence, as well as anthropology, chemistry and biology students, who help analyze it, plus criminal-justice students and those in the paralegal program. Eventually, it will even pull in members of the school's theater club to play parts in a criminal trial next month.

"We're interested in offering an interdisciplinary crime scene," Hirsh said. "In the real world, you'd have multiple agencies or departments involved, so we wanted to give students a simulated example."

The students worked in three, two-hour shifts March 17 at CCA's CentreTech Campus — the grilled food provided a welcome lunch break — mapping and collecting evidence under the direction of their instructors.

"Every individual discipline brings something special to a process like this," said Stephanie Doyle, 29, an archaeology student who figures this type of experience can only help her pursuit of psychology. "By studying as much as I can about humans, including the way criminals think and the patterns you find at scenes like this, the more it will help me in my field."

Hirsh took delight in watching the students interact among themselves at the excavation site — "peer teaching" that evolved naturally from the experience. But the faculty interaction among diverse disciplines also provided a collegiality that doesn't always happen in higher education.

"We're all willing to help each other out," Hirsh said. "Then the new faculty coming on board can see this, and it becomes a type of acculturation. We play together in the sandbox well."

Three days earlier, she had sat in on another class as Lt. Tim Dufour, director of the Aurora Police Department crime lab, led his Crime Scene Investigation students through a mock-up of an apartment within the school's Center for Simulation on the Lowry Campus.

He already had briefed them on some elements of the mystery — a woman reported missing, her boyfriend's violent past and his subsequent disappearance.

"Guilty as charged!" joked one of his students.

"Follow the evidence," cautioned Dufour, repeating a CSI mantra. "The evidence never lies."

In groups of six, he turned them loose in the mock apartment, then gathered them in the living room to discuss what they had found and proper procedure for processing evidence.

In the otherwise-orderly apartment, the students zeroed in on a couple of bloody handprints, a broken lampshade and a bullet casing — all clues that pointed toward someone coming to harm. But after a brief discussion, they realized that there was no clear suspect, or even a clearly defined crime.

"Don't become fixated on a scenario," Dufour said, "because you have to be able to leave it by the side of the road if the evidence takes you somewhere else."

The apartment simulation engaged the students, particularly 29-year-old Amanda Giese, who shifted her emphasis from English to criminal justice based largely on Dufour's class — plus, she was intrigued by the warning about graphic crime scenes in the course description.

"My dad is an attorney," Giese said, "and I grew up helping him out. I've always been interested in the hows and whys."

On that Saturday at the excavation, the students rotated through the different tasks, focusing on their own specialty but also getting a sense of the big-picture investigation.

"They're coming in very cold," said forensic-anthropology instructor Gary Scott, whose students will analyze the skeletal remains to home in on age, ethnicity and possible pathologies and trauma. "That's intentional, because in the real world, when they're called out, they'll be starting from scratch."

With weeks to go before the trial, the mystery remains far from solved. By the time all the clues have been analyzed and the case has reached resolution, the participants will have had a hands-on experience in their own specialty and a taste of several others.

"We're training students for a career, not just focusing on a degree, per se," said Michael Carter, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Service departments.

Josh Hammerling, 33, wasn't sure what direction to take his education before the simulation began. But as he moved among the instructors at the excavation site, he noted that further studies in forensic anthropology and investigation lie in his future.

"I was on the fence," said Hammerling, "but I've learned I have an eye for detail. Without an experience like this, I might not have ever realized it."

Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739 or ksimpson@denverpost.com