Learning by Doing…
No Bones about It: Graduate Students
Learn Hands-on in Central Park
by Sam Anderson
On city streets, below ground, and on the water—these three distinct environments are linked by a common thread: Each of these locations is the setting of a John Jay class. To investigate how the College is contributing to CUNY-wide efforts to promote experiential learning opportunities, Justice Matters looked at three John Jay faculty members who are breaking down the walls of the classroom and giving students hands-on lessons in urban anthropology, forensic anthropology, and maritime security. For President Travis, co-chair of a university task force on experiential learning, these efforts are critical to bridging the gap between theory and application, providing students with an up close and personal view of how the material they learn in class translates to the real world.
No Bones about It: Graduate Students Learn Hands-on in Central Park
At around seven in the morning on a cool fall day, Angelique Corthals headed into Central Park with a shovel and a very large bag. She approached the composting area near the 106th Street entrance and removed the contents of the bag—a human skeleton—and began digging a shallow grave.
“I’m always totally amazed by how blasé New Yorkers are. When they see someone digging with a shovel and this big bag in Central Park, they’re like ‘whatever,’” laughed Corthals, an assistant professor of forensic anthropology and biomedical sciences at John Jay.
Around an hour later, her students have arrived. After donning white full-cover protective suits, they’re ready to tackle the most important assignment of the graduate course in forensic anthropology: excavation and osteological identification. It is a chance to participate in the type of fieldwork typically reserved for career forensic anthropologists.
“I give them a scenario,” Corthals said. “A passerby was walking a dog in the park and the dog brought back what looked like a human femur. The passerby goes to the NYPD, and they call my students.”
The students have been training for this job all semester, and divide themselves into teams, each led by a principal investigator. The teams consist of diggers, mapmakers, measurement takers, evidence collectors, photographers, and note takers.
“Everyone brings different strengths to the field,” said Carlos Texeira, one of the participating students. “People draw from their specialties and we bring it together to complete the report.”
Using a forensic technique called the “double U,” students grid the area and begin searching for human remains. Corthals simulates the disturbance made by the dog, meaning she’s left a bone or two sticking out of the dirt. Once discovered, the remains must be properly excavated, and the students need to ensure that all evidence is bagged and tagged accordingly. During the excavation process, they discover more than just bones—a hammer, a skull with signs of blunt trauma, pieces of binoculars, and torn clothing. “I leave little clues here and there to guide them toward the potential identity of the person,” Corthals explained.
The skeletal remains correspond to just one of several cold-case scenarios devised by Corthals, and it’s the students’ task to match the case with the body. Corthals even leaves footprints around the site, the prints of the person who buried the body. For her students, every tiny detail matters, and nothing can be overlooked.
“They have to analyze the remains and determine either an I.D. or a potential cause or manner of death,” said Corthals. “Then they have a moot court as their final exam. As a group, they present the results and their conclusions to the jury.”
If during the moot court proceedings something is amiss, evidence is found to be missing, or the body I.D. doesn’t match the specifics of the cold case, the students have squandered an opportunity to solve the case—a lesson most forensic anthropologists don’t learn until they experience fieldwork for the first time. In this respect, Corthals’ students are gaining a tremendous advantage.
“You cannot replace practical experience with theoretical exposition, particularly in the field of forensic anthropology,” said the professor, who likens it to teaching someone how to drive without letting them get behind the wheel.
But the lesson itself is not easy to plan. The excavation usually takes a full day to complete, not to mention the months of planning and negotiations required for Corthals to secure the necessary permits. She credits the Central Park Conservancy with making it happen. “They have been absolutely amazing. They were very helpful every step of the way, and they’re doing a superb job,” she said.
She also points out that the students are so meticulous and diligent in their evidence collection that they refuse to leave anything untouched. The result: They clean that section of the park like it’s never been cleaned before, a bonus for the Conservancy.
Her students agree that the benefits of this hands-on approach to learning are tremendous. Said participant Erica Klafehn: “Fieldwork experience is super important for graduate school. Having something like this on your résumé or to talk about in a college interview really makes you a star applicant because you do have that fieldwork experience.”
“It added a sense of realism,” added Texeira, “and I found that I actually learn better by seeing and doing and using my hands, rather than sitting in a classroom and reading it out of a textbook.”
Texeira graduated from John Jay in 2015 and has since continued working with Corthals on several projects, including an archaeological dig in the Valley of the Nobles in Egypt. That time, the bodies they excavated were not donated to science, but were genuine Egyptian mummies. Unfortunately, Corthals inhaled a cloud of dust from one of those mummies and came down with a rare form of pneumonia, one of the occupational hazards of a forensic anthropologist.
“She’s so smart, she has the answer to everything, she talks from actual experience, and she makes it fun,” said Texeira, who currently works as an adjunct professor at John Jay and is applying to Ph.D. programs.
“She also bridges the fields of science and anthropology together, which is a connection that’s misunderstood by society,” said Klafehn. “There’s a science component because trauma is inᰀicted and we see this in forensic cases, but we can also get an archeological understanding, and an anthropological understanding as well, because depending on the type of toolmarks made on the bones, we can learn what types of people were around in a specific area and time period.”
Corthals hopes to build on the success of her class and begin a graduate program in forensic anthropology. “That would be the dream,” she said, “to combine our anthropology people with our forensic people, and attract the Ph.D. students who are vital to the scientific life of the department.” If the success of the osteological identification project is any indication, John Jay students are ready for the challenge.“Every single year I have been amazed at just how prepared they are. It’s absolutely vital that they have this experience,” said Corthals.