Changing technologies of forensic science
Buttermore: What are the challenges that the NFSTC faces with regard to the changing technologies of forensic science?
Lothridge: Every year technology changes and the people who are currently in the field performing forensic work need continuing professional development. Many of the people we train are transitional, not necessarily new to science, but new to forensic technology. For example, a great environmental chemist who has been doing work on the fringe of forensic science might now decide to work in a laboratory that works for or supports the government in environmental forensic science. That person already has the scientific background, but needs further professional training in a specific discipline.
Buttermore: Many universities have an accreditation body. Is there an equivalent kind of body for professional development outside of academia?
Lothridge: Certification of forensic analysts is voluntary and not mandated, except for a few states. This is why there is no real Continuing Education Unit (CEU) approval body. Years ago, the NSFTC created a CEU program, but it never took off because law didn’t require it. There is no license required, but this may soon change. However, this is not true of DNA analysis, which is the field where the largest number of new candidates is being hired. The U.S. has federally mandated legislation that requires DNA analysts to have at least eight hours of continued professional development each year. No other forensic discipline has such a mandate. For other scientific working groups such as drug identification specialists, eight hours of continual training is suggested, but not mandated.
The NFSTC and the forensic community
Buttermore: How do organizations like the NFSTC bring benefits to the forensic community and how do these benefits relate to your mission statement?
Lothridge: Our vision is "for the forensic science community and its users to have complete confidence in the quality of the science services provided to the justice community as it strives to ensure the public safety". Our job is to provide technical assistance and training to support the public-funded crime laboratory, which in turn, supports the general public. Our mission states that, "we are dedicated to supporting the justice community in ensuring the public safety by assisting the forensic sciences in the achievement of the highest level of quality services". Our goal is to help the bench worker to accurately do his or her job. I enjoy the feeling of providing support to the nation’s crime laboratories so they can better assist in ensuring public safety.
Buttermore: Is there any other comparable organization to yours in the U.S. or in the world?
Lothridge: The National Institute of Forensic Science in Australia is similar to the NSFTC. We are both government supported and non-profit. The NSFTC is the only organization in the United States, that I am aware of, that is comprised of members in the forensic community and academic institutions and led by a Board of Directors to guide and deliver training throughout the 50 United States and two territories. Most other forensic organizations in the U.S. are hosted by universities or are committed to their membership belonging to a particular state.
Buttermore: What are the current trends in creating continuing professional development programs and how does that affect your organization both technically and through funding?
Lothridge: Historically, there has been a high demand for training with a mentor/trainee structure, where an external person provided the training. However, there are simply not enough trainers to address the need. Furthermore, in many law enforcement agencies where crime laboratories reside, budget cuts occur. Training budgets are usually the first thing to be cut because training is costly. The NFSTC tries to address this issue with a variety of online training options.
“I enjoy the feeling of providing support to the nation’s crime laboratories so they can better assist in ensuring public safety.”
– Kevin Lothridge, Executive Director of the NFSTC
We look at a blended methodology to handle this challenge. We train with the motto "teach once; use many". We incorporate a variety of technology-based tools and develop training using podcasts and websites because the trainee’s ability to access training is significantly expanded when a variety of delivery options are available. The training can be delivered to people at their own workstations and then reviewed by their mentors. Trainees can link to a test bank, register, take a test, and the results can be delivered to their supervisors. We enhance the learning experience with a mixture of animation, video clips, and interactive tools, and structure the content to be suitable for initial training, review training, and ongoing competency training. The younger generation, who grew up with laptops and media players, wants information that is accessed via index map; they want information at their fingertips (see http://projects.nfstc.org)
Buttermore: Do you use an online format to train larger groups of people?
Lothridge: We have to be inventive in this technological age to ensure that we are meeting the needs of a broad group of stakeholders. Although it might not be exactly the same experience as a physical classroom, WebEx™ is one conference tool with the capability of displaying material online, allowing us to provide instruction to hundreds of people simultaneously. WebEx™ also permits participants to ask questions, which can then be answered by a moderator for display to the requester only or to all participants. The trainee can archive the sessions and play them again anytime. The material we can cover in a two-hour training session is equal to that of a full day of training. The trainee doesn’t lose a full day of work or travel time. We are big believers in collaborative tools that allow you to interact with the person and the instrumentation from a distance.
History of the NFSTC
The National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation established in 1995 by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD). The ASCLD board members envisioned a company that would be independent of their organization and able to provide quality systems support, training, and education to the forensic science community in the United States.
Leica Microsystems would like to express its appreciation to Kevin Lothridge for his insight on quality training and education for the forensic science professional.