Games of Forensics: The Karabots Fellows Show Off Their Prototypes

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program demonstrate a card-based roleplaying game on forensics to two visitors to the Mütter Museum

Throughout the school year, the Karabots Junior Fellows have learned about the basic principles of game design. They have met with game developers, used games to learn about STEM concepts, playtested medically-themed games in class, and done some game development work of their own. All the while, they have learned about a variety of fields related to forensic science.

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program demonstrate a game on forensics they designed to visitors to the Mütter Museum

Beginning in January, instructor Kevin Impellizeri broke them into five teams and issued a challenge: work together to develop a prototype for a game themed around forensic science. It could be any aspect of the field and they could develop a game in any style they wished (such as roleplaying-based, board-based, or card-based). Throughout the semester, they devoted periods in class to work out a concept, develop a prototype and put it to the test, making alterations as they saw fit. This past Saturday they finally unveiled their finished products.

A student in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program demonstrates a board game on forensics to two visitors to the Mütter Museum

The best test of a game’s success is seeing how it plays; therefore, we opened the Koop classroom and let visitors to the Mütter Museum come in and try them out. Visitors met with each team of Fellows, who explained the rules and helped them play through their games. Several of the Fellows even created and carried signs in the Museum lobby to entice visitors to play their games!

Several of the Karabots Junior Fellows entice visitors to the Müttre Museum to try their games, holding a sign saying "Try Mütter's New Games"

The Karabots Junior Fellows Become Eyewitnesses

In their continued quest to learn all there is to know about forensic science, the Karabots Junior Fellows met with Robert Hicks, Director of the Mütter Museum & the Historical Medical Library & William Maul Measey Chair for the History of Medicine at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (Dr. Hicks frequently appears in informative videos on the Mütter Museum’s YouTube channel and recently was an expert witness in the comedy podcast Judge John Hodgman). One of many facets of a diverse career, Dr. Hicks once served as a police officer and FBI-trained investigator. During his recent session with the Fellows, he walked through the proper procedures for securing a crime scene and interviewing witnesses…

…and that’s when tragedy struck!

A hitherto unknown assailant burst into the Koop classroom to surprise of everyone present. Brandishing a knife and shouting accusations of a torrid affair between her husband and Dr. Hicks, she lunged at our speaker, rained down several blows, and stole away as quickly and as mysteriously as she had arrived. The whole affair lasted roughly seven seconds.

Mütter Museum director Robert Hicks and Curator Anna Dhody stage a mock assault to teach the Karabots Junior Fellows the role of eyewitnesses in forensic investigation

Disclaimer: Dramatization (no one actually got hurt)

Fortunately, the assailant’s blows failed to stifle the indefatigable Robert Hicks, who arose from the ground unharmed in spite of the violent attack on his person. Regaining his composure, he instructed the surprised Fellows, to write down what they saw in an attempt to parse out what happened. Students in turn acted as both eyewitnesses and investigators as they examined the events of the crime, comparing their testimonies to ascertain the order of events, what was said between the attacker and Dr. Hicks, and a physical description of the would-be assassin. Finally, Dr. Hicks had the attacker, revealed to be Mütter Museum curator Anna Dhody, re-enter the room to compare her actual appearance with the description the students provided (it was fairly close).

Robert Hicks compares the Fellows eyewitness description of Anna Dhody, his erstwhile assailant

The students learned three valuable lessons that day: the challenges facing police investigators recreating a crime scene, the subjectivity of eyewitness testimony, and never, ever mess with Anna!

The Karabots Junior Fellows Ask Questions About Justice and Prisons

Daytime facade of Eastern State Penitentiary

Image Source: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

As part of their year-long focus on forensic science, the Karabots Junior Fellows have been exposed to issues related to the larger criminal justice system, of which forensics comprises a small part. This week the Fellows learned about American prisons and the complex political issue that is mass incarceration. On Saturday, May 21, they along with students from the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program will be making a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary to view the historic site and its new exhibit on the impact of prisons in America.

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 as an ambitious new approach to criminal justice. The prison operated on the idea of rehabilitating inmates to inspire “penitence,” or deep regret (hence the word “penitentiary”, of which ESP was the first). While at Eastern State, they will take a tour of the building’s history, explore the cellblocks, and learn about the role prisons play in America today.

Lauren Zalut, Director of Education at Eastern State Penitentiary, works with the Karabots Junior Fellows to find a definition of "justice"

In preparation for their visit to the Penitentiary, the Karabots Junior Fellows met with Lauren Zalut, Director of Education and Tour Programs for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. In keeping with the site’s focus on discussion-based programming, Lauren offered a deceptively simple question for the Fellows to ponder: “What is justice?” The Fellows went around the room, with each offering their own definition and addressing topics such as fairness, civil rights, retribution, and social injustice.

One of the Karabots Junior Fellows shares his opinion of justice and prisons

Lauren then had the Fellows divide into pairs and share with each other the first time they had ever encountered injustice. Each student then shared personal stories of their encounters with injustice, from violence, to discrimination, to racial profiling. In doing so, Lauren challenged the Fellows to consider the economic, social, political, and racial factors that have contributed to the United States having the world’s largest prison population (the US currently has roughly 2.2 million people in prison and houses roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners). Finally, she had them write on a note card one subject they hope to learn more about during their visit. We will see how many new facts about prisons and the criminal justice system they learn when they visit this weekend.

The Karabots Junior Fellows examine cards on which they have written what they want to learn during their upcoming trip to Eastern State Penitentiary

The Karabots Junior Fellows Become Game Developers

The Karabots Junior Fellows work in teams to develop forensic science-themed tabletop games

The current cohort of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program has had a great deal of exposure to both forensic science and the use of games in the classroom. Their exploits throughout the year have involved studying diverse fields of forensics, including forensic anthropology, document analysis, and even lie detection. They have used games to learn about the Scientific Method, crime scene investigation, and the basic principles of computer coding. As part of their year-long project, it is their goal to bring the worlds of gaming and forensics together by designing their own forensic science-themed tabletop games.

Over the last few months, they have been responsible for breaking into teams (called Houses) to plan and design their own games. They have been given complete creative freedom to shape their games however they like, with each House deciding the theme, tone, mechanics, rules, and objectives. Their only restriction placed on them is that the game must involve some aspect of forensic science.

A list of challenges for the Karabots Junior Fellows' Houses to complete while designing their own games

Recently, the Fellows took a big step in bringing their visions to life. In a recent session, Mr. Kevin issued a major challenge to the Houses with a significant amount of House Points on the line (each semester, the House with the most points earns a prize). The challenge: complete and play test their first prototype, and share their games with other Houses. Each House assembled, and set to work.

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program discuss their forensics-themed game

The Houses worked feverishly to complete all the challenges in the allotted time. In the end, all but one successfully completed their prototype and put them to the test. Along the way, they learned to channel their creativity, to work under deadlines, how to manage successes (and failures) and, most important, how to work together. We look forward to sharing their completed products in the near future!





The Karabots Junior Fellows Foil “Kidnapping” Plot

A "ransom note" for the Karabots Junior Fellows' lesson on handwriting analysis

In their semester-long quest to learn all there is to know about forensic science, the Karabots Junior Fellows learned about how forensic scientists examine documents. Questioned Document Examination(QDE) is the name given to any document analysis involved in criminal cases, be they ransom letters, counterfeit bills or checks, or historical documents of questionable authenticity. It has a variety of applications in a wide array of cases, including identifying forged, illegally altered, or counterfeited documents to assisting murder and kidnapping cases, to investigating acts of terrorism. The Fellows examined just a few of the techniques and applications (you can learn more about QDE here).

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program examine a questioned document during a lesson on handwriting analysis

As luck would turn out, knowledge of QDE immediately came in handy. During class, they received word that Bucky, the classroom’s skeleton, had been kidnapped by some unknown culprit. The only clue we had as to the kidnapper’s identity was a handwritten ransom note.  Using their newly-acquired skills in handwriting analysis, the Fellows broke into groups and compared the ransom note to handwriting samples from several key suspects. In doing so, they were able to identify the perpetrator of this dastardly plot!

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program examine a questioned document during a lesson on handwriting analysis


Philly Youth Learn the Impact of Gun Violence

Students from the Karabots Junior Fellows and Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Programs pose with ballistics expert Mark Williford

One small piece of metal can change a person’s life forever. On Saturday, the Teva Interns and Karabots Junior Fellows came together to address issues in forensics, ballistics, and gun violence. Together they met with Mark Williford, a forensic ballistics expert and formerly an officer in the Philadelphia Police Department. Williford shared his experience as a police officer and crime investigator, as well as accounts from growing up in Philadelphia and his firsthand encounters with violence. More than just addressing the science of ballistics, Williford challenged the students to critically examine the impact of gun violence on individuals and communities.

Ballistics expert mark Williford talks to the Teva Interns and Karabots Junior Fellows

CEPI Students Learn the Science of Deception Detection


Image of a polygraph

Source: spiralstares [Flickr], used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (, no changes made

A few weeks ago, students in both the Karabots Junior Fellows Program and the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program learned career development skills through a hands-on demonstration in lie detection. A student from each program volunteered to take to a crude lie detector test, administered by Youth Program Coordinator Kevin Impellizeri. Kevin asked  a series of questions, beginning with simple ones (“What is your name?”) and ending with more challenging ones (“Have you ever cheated on a test?”), all the while he monitored their pulse. Kevin assures us he cannot tell whether someone is lying; merely, he was monitoring their physical response to his line of questioning. In fact, despite its depictions in popular culture as an infallible measure of truth or deception, polygraphs (“lie detector machines”) do not measure whether or not a person is telling the truth; rather they monitor the body’s physical response to questioning (what the American Polygraph Association describes as the “Physiological Detection of Deception“). Polygraphs are designed to measure changes in heart rate, respiration, and perspiration, and (in theory) a trained technician can measure this biological feedback to tell whether or not a subject is lying.

However, whether or not polygraphs actually “work” is a subject of considerable debate. In 2003, the National Research Council published a detailed report on polygraphs. The report, titled The Polygraph and Lie Detection, put polygraph usage into question and, among other things, cited a lack of standardized practices for questioning and the existence of countermeasures designed to “beat” a polygraph as reasons to doubt their effectiveness.  In 2004, the American Psychological Association came out against polygraph examination, describing the practice as “more myth than reality.” Polygraph results are inadmissable as evidence in court cases in the United States; however they are still utilized to monitor paroled prison inmates and to screen candidates for jobs in law enforcement. Ironically, the Philadelphia Police Department discontinued polygraph tests for new cadets in 2003, citing lack of reliability, only to reinstate them in 2011 to paradoxically add greater integrity to the police hiring process.

So why subject our students to a lie detector test? Job training! While the chances of being subjected to a polygraph test in one’s lifetime are remote, everyone at some point has to go on a job interview, and it has been well documented that how well one conducts themselves in an interview is essential. After a lesson on polygraphs, members of CEPI borrowed from the “Physiological Detection of Deception” by going over ways to behave during a job interview, including monitoring one’s verbal and nonverbal cues (body language, eye contact, timing of responses, etc.). This was followed with practice interviews to help prepare the students for success.