The Charger Blog

Lee College Faculty Help Create Experiential Learning Opportunities for Local High School Students

The University and Notre Dame High School in West Haven recently collaborated to offer a program that let high school students explore careers in criminal justice and forensic science. It enabled several University faculty members with diverse areas of expertise and experience to interact with students.

May 5, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Guest speakers included local law enforcement professionals.
Guest speakers included local law enforcement professionals.

Matthew C., a student at Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Conn., recently had the opportunity to explore a variety of career possibilities in the criminal justice and forensic science fields. He and several of his classmates learned from professionals with decades of real-world experience – many of whom are University of New Haven faculty.

An incoming Charger, Matthew recently took part in the Notre Dame Experiential Learning Program (NDXL) at his high school that is just steps away from the University’s main campus. He enjoyed learning more about the many careers he could pursue after college, and, he says, listening to world-renowned forensic scientist Dr. Henry C. Lee, a professor emeritus at the University, discuss forensic science was particularly exciting.

“I thought this experience was very informative,” he said. “I liked listening to the guest speakers. Dr. Lee has so much experience and knowledge. It was interesting to learn that to get far in forensic science, many years of schooling are required. NDXL allowed us to see the whole gamut of the criminal justice system from gathering evidence to the ultimate arrest. I am definitely more informed after this program.”

‘I was glad to share that with them’

Over the course of two weeks, more than 30 students learned from professionals about the important work they do to help keep the public safe and solve crimes. Students met SWAT, bomb squad, and K9 team members, as well as a Notre Dame High School alumnus who now serves as a judge.

Students also heard from Beth Merkin, J.D., a lecturer at the University who spent more than 30 years as a public defender in New Haven. She discussed her own work, as well as the impact of Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that indigent people accused of committing a crime must be provided a court-appointed attorney. She says the students were very engaged as they participated in the discussion, which she later realized was quite timely.

“I was excited to speak to the Notre Dame students, as they seemed engaged and curious during my talk,” said Dr. Merkin. “I described how my career was filled with both challenges and great rewards. Most of the students had not understood or appreciated the importance of the fundamental right of having a court-appointed attorney, so I was glad to share that with them.

“I later learned that the very day of my presentation was actually ‘Gideon Day,’ which marks the anniversary of the Gideon v. Wainwright decision,” she continued. “I reached out to their teacher to make sure she told them about that notable coincidence.”

Students had the opportunity to interact with K9 handlers as part of the program.
Students had the opportunity to interact with K9 handlers as part of the program.
‘What a college lecture would look like’

Students also learned from several other Lee College faculty members, including Angie Ambers, Ph.D., an associate professor of forensic science who discussed a “body farm,” where decomposition is studied; Robert Sanders, LP.D., J.D., LLM, an associate professor of national security and a retired U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps) Captain; and David San Pietro, Ph.D., an associate professor of forensic science, who engaged students in a discussion about DNA.

“The guest speakers from the University gave us a great look into what a college lecture would look like,” said Dylan W., a Notre Dame student. “The speakers were very interactive, bringing all different types of specialties into the classroom and showing us a great deal of fun. It was very interesting, and it was great to see them forming a relationship with Notre Dame that will go a long way in the future.”

‘Comprehensive and interesting’

The engaging student experience was exactly what Lisa Dadio, M.S., MSW, assistant dean of the Lee College and director of the Center for Advanced Policing, envisioned when she organized the program. She began collaborating with Carmen Gunneson, a Spanish teacher at Notre Dame High School, before COVID, but they were forced to postpone the program the past two years because of the pandemic.

Excited to offer the program this year, Prof. Dadio reached out to her colleagues and contacts at the University and beyond, and she says everyone she spoke with was eager to be a part of it. She looked forward to bringing professionals with diverse expertise and experience in a variety of fields to interact with the students.

“We’ve provided so much knowledge on how many career opportunities there are available to students in the criminal justice and forensic science fields,” said Prof. Dadio, whose own sons also attended NDHS. One of her sons had Gunneson as a teacher. “I hope they learn that by coming to the University, they’re going to be taught by many of the same people who just spoke to them, who are experts in their fields. Students are being taught by people who have done the work and who are able to share that knowledge, their connections, and their passion.”

“The NDXL program exceeded my expectations,” added Gunneson. “Our students had a unique experience for two weeks. Their days were filled with experts sharing their knowledge and real-world experiences.

“My students’ common observation is that they never realized how comprehensive and interesting this field is,” she continued. “The speakers strongly encouraged them to set personal goals and to apply themselves now in high school. The range of topics was very diverse, and all the speakers successfully engaged our students.”

The NDXL program enabled students to learn from professionals with real-world experience.
The NDXL program enabled students to learn from professionals with real-world experience.
‘One step closer to their dreams’

The hope was that, by engaging with professionals with varying areas of expertise, students would learn about the myriad opportunities within criminal justice and forensic science. While students may be familiar with positions such as a police officer and agencies such as the Secret Service, they may not know about the work of bomb technicians, K9 handlers, or crime-scene investigators. Organizers also hoped to educate students on the many concentrations within these fields – such as youth justice.

“I was really able to learn and get a solid understanding of what certain people do and how it all comes together to solve crimes, especially from the University of New Haven professors,” said Matthew T., a Notre Dame student and an incoming Charger. “They went into great detail and made their presentations interactive and interesting.”

For Prof. Bridget Brosnahan, a lecturer at the University and a crime scene detective for the city of New Haven with more than 20 years of experience in law enforcement, engaging with the students was an exciting opportunity to share her passion for her work.

“Being asked to speak to a new generation of students who are interested in forensic science and law enforcement was not only honorable but rewarding,” she said. “They were attentive, engaged, and captivated by the stories I shared about what it’s like to be a crime-scene investigator. I love nothing more than to share my knowledge and experience, with the hope they can walk away feeling like they are one step closer to their dreams.”

‘We love sharing our expertise with students’

As part of the program, students also visited the University and the West Haven Police Department. The program provided opportunities for students to interact with professionals and ask questions, learning about their day-to-day work and the impact they are having.

Several Lee College faculty spoke to students as part of the program.
Several Lee College faculty spoke to students as part of the program.

“As educators, we want our students to not only learn and question what they learn but to become aware of career paths,” said Josep De Alcaraz-Fossoul, Ph.D., an assistant professor of forensic science whose research explores cutting-edge methods to estimate the age of fingerprints at crime scenes. “By being a part of this program, I hope students will get excited about what we do in forensic science, and build excitement from knowing that this line of work can help victims of crimes and their families in a tangible way – and to make our society safer.”

“I loved how the professors were very interactive with us throughout the lectures,” added Christopher H., a student at Notre Dame High School. “I also learned there are many different parts of law enforcement and that many people have to take time away from their families to help people.”

Prof. Dadio says she has received “incredible feedback” from students and instructors, and she hopes to offer the program again next year. Her goal is to expand the program to enable students beyond Notre Dame High School to have a similarly meaningful experience.

“This is the type of program we’re willing to do with any high school in Connecticut,” said Prof. Dadio. “All they have to do is contact me and I can work with them, whether it is a one-day, three-day, or five-day program. We love sharing our expertise with students.”