Instructor Candice Chambers tries to "gamify" many of her forensic science and forensic anthropology courses.


Chambers brings gaming to the classroom

Forensic science instructor Candice Chambers is a huge fan of using gaming as a learning tool.

“I try to gamify depending on what course I’m dealing with,” says Chambers, who teaches both forensic science and forensic anthropology courses online and in the classroom at NCSSM, and co-teaches an online epidemiology course with biology instructor Amanda Martyn.

Her most notable application of game mechanics to principles of science is “Skeleton Key,” a set of cards she created to simulate case studies in forensic anthropology.

“Sometimes you run across a scenario in forensic anthropology and don’t know what to make of it,” says Chambers, who began using the cards in her classes this semester. “Maybe it’s a mass grave, maybe not. Based on the variations in the scene, you should be able to identify it.”

To simulate the random samples that an actual forensic anthropologist might obtain, students pull cards from a deck of 52 playing cards. Chambers has created a specialized deck with pictures on it, but a regular deck, paired with Chambers’s guide for educators, also works.

Each card corresponds to a specific clue. The five of hearts, for example, is a pelvic girdle with a particular shape, one that Chambers’s students—who’ve had a crash course in human osteology—should be able to identify as a male pelvis. The six of hearts is a skull specimen with female characteristics. With those two cards alone, students might deduce that the site has more than one body in it. Additional cards—giving clues about sex, ancestry, and possible trauma—provide more information about the scene, allowing students to form hypotheses about what happened there.

The tool is a boon for educators who might be low on funding. “The idea is that you don’t have to have a skeleton on hand,” explained Chambers.

To teach other skills like geographic profiling, teamwork, and deductive reasoning, Chambers employs an actual board game. Called “Letters from Whitechapel,” the game—available online—uses a map of London to track the steps of Jack the Ripper and his crime scenes.

Chambers usually plays Jack, moving on an unseen board to kill again and eventually get back to his lair; meanwhile, the students, working as detectives, team up to arrest Jack or uncover his hiding spot.

The students wind up strategizing and working as a community, while also using key skills. “This is about geographic profiling, a criminal psychology tool where you take similar crimes, plot them on a map, and learn habits,” says Chambers. It also uses principles of graph theory to determine how far away Jack is and how quickly he will move to another location.

It’s also a refreshing way for students and instructors to interact. “I like to see how they think while playing a board game,” says Chambers of her students. “And they get excited to see my competitive streak come out.”

Applying game principles to learning comes naturally to Chambers, who plays board games in her off hours, too. “My husband and I met online, and his message [to me] said, ‘The important question is, are you a Monopoly or a Trivial Pursuit person?’ He’s introduced me to tons of games.”

Chambers uses other game principles whenever she can: in the classroom at NCSSM, online, and on site visits around the state. She and Martyn recently organized a bioterrorism simulation for their forensics and epidemiology students—Team CSI and Team CDC, respectively—tasking both with picking apart clues for the investigation.

Meanwhile, Chambers has found a new board game to use in her classes. It simulates a crime scene investigation, but first she has to retrofit it to make it more applicable to NCSSM students. And that’s a game in itself, says Chambers. “I’m just trying to figure it out.”