It's a sunny Saturday on Rowan's main campus and a mock crime scene is taped off along Chestnut Branch Drive.
Though the "corpse" buried nearby isn't real, it might as well be as forensic anthropology students secure the scene, excavate the bones, "bag and tag" the evidence, and haul it all off to the lab.
The program is conducted every other year by professors Maria Rosado and Jane Hill as the capstone project for their forensic anthropology course and is designed to teach students the science of crime scene investigation.
Taking time out to explain the process, Dr. Rosado says police use the same techniques for identifying skeletal remains as archeologists unearthing ancient relics.
"An excavation is an excavation," she says. "The only difference between this and an archeological dig is material collected at a crime scene becomes evidence in a court of law."
Before her, students remove top soil with shovels, ever so carefully, until they reach the first bone, then switch to hand trowels, bamboo picks and a progression of ever-finer screens in their search for evidential remains.
Dr. Rosado says in the weeks leading up to the CSI project students study osteology – the study of bones – with her, and excavation methods with Dr. Hill, an experienced Egyptologist.
"From the bones we can learn so much," Dr. Rosado continues. "You can identity the age, the sex, the race, even the cause of death."
This year's class has 14 students, all of whom work specific jobs within the CSI team.
Senior Sarah Louxz, a law and justice major whose role on the team involves media relations, tells a roving reporter that the program always comes with a backstory. And it's always grisly.
"From his deathbed an old man confessed that he'd done something bad in this vicinity," says Louxz, 22, of Atlantic City. "His claim was suspicious so the police were called in to investigate."
Sure enough, she says, upon arrival the Rowan CSI team finds a patch of grass that has been disturbed and tire tracks leading from the scene. The team marks off the area and begins mapping it with photos, drawings and handheld GPS devices.
And then, about ten minutes after securing the area, the first hard evidence is found.
"We've got bone!" a student announces, and others gather round, deploying paint brushes, bamboo meat skewers, and other small tools to remove packed-in soil but not damage the bones.
"We have to fully record it in situ – in place – before the body is moved," Dr. Hill says.
It takes about two hours to fully expose the skeleton. Once all evidence is secured it's brought back to the lab where students will analyze it in the closing weeks of the semester. The final project is a forensic anthropology report that the class will produce as a group.
Dr. Hill, who has worked on numerous archeological digs in Egypt, says the process is slow, methodical and far more exacting than is often portrayed on TV.
"Excavations are really very similar," she says. "The same principals are applied to the evidence."
Jessica Turin, 23, a senior geography major from Pittgrove, plans to work in geo-archeology – GPS mapping used in government and industry alike.
For her, the Rowan CSI project is one for the resume.
"I've done digs before but this is the first time I'm handling human bone," she says. "It's a different technique than, say, handling pottery. This is stuff you learn in class but you can't really understand it until you get out here."