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Experiential Learning

With a Critical Eye

With a Critical Eye

With a Critical Eye

Transdisciplinary research efforts help to shed insight on criminal cases gone cold



  • Student organization tackles unsolved criminal cases.
  • Organization is affiliated with the national Cold Case Investigative Research Institute.
  • Students from any major or discipline at UTSA can join.

By Michelle Mondo |
Originally Posted 5/1/2019 |
FROM THE Spring/Summer 2019 ISSUE

Experiential learning doesn’t have to be associated with a class, as the student organization Cold Case Investigative Research Institute proves. Launched by sociology professor Terri Earnest and student-turned-lecturer Colton Daniels, the organization brings together students of all disciplines to review cold case files that are passed on to them through the national organization of the same name.

“That’s how people think cases work—that they get solved quickly. But they don’t.”

The cases need fresh eyes, Earnest says, and having a multidisciplinary group can help see things that others didn’t. “They are young, they think outside the box, and they aren’t as conditioned,” she says. “We’ve had an engineering student and one studying business, and it was the business major who brought something up on a case that I hadn’t thought of. And it was something that might help investigators move forward with the case.”

One recent case involved a person who was shot to death while driving. Earnest stresses the group isn’t out to solve crimes, in that they aren’t knocking on doors, interviewing those involved, or collecting evidence. “The goal is to help solve it, but we do that by reviewing the case folder, and we issue a report of recommendations and things we might have seen that could help.”

Life Transforming Experience

UTSA helps its students create their future by providing an immersive educational experience. The university’s goal is to have, by 2028, at least 75% of all students participating in hands-on research and engagement. Just as important as students gaining life-changing proficiency, these opportunities enable every participant to have an impact on the lives of others as they take on projects not just locally but globally. Here, Sombrilla Magazine explores some of these endeavors and how they are transformational for Roadrunners.

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For Daniels, a sociology lecturer and Ph.D. student, the organization helps him with his research and also understand more about what he wants to pursue in the future. As a lecturer, Daniels says he sees that students want more experiential learning and says there is a balance to be made between more traditional classroom lectures and gaining real-world experience.

“Criminology has always fascinated me,” Daniels says. “Once I started taking classes with Terri Earnest, the organization fueled my passion, and this became my first outlet to get a glimpse of how this can truly be part of my career path. Right now I’m working on my doctorate in demography with an emphasis in sociology. It’s truly wonderful because it links sociology, psychology. You get a gist of emotions and human behavior, and for me that’s allowed me to apply the social psychology method to my research.”

Students often find out about the organization through Earnest’s classes, which is how current organization president Brendon Decker learned about the group. “I took Dr. Earnest’s behavioral profiling class last semester and was hooked,” he says. “I have a keen interest in how serial killers are created via the nature-versus-nurture debate, such that I hope to conduct research on the topic upon earning a Ph.D. in psychology.”

For undergraduate student and organization member Amber Trevino, the group fits with her path to getting her master’s degree in forensic psychology and landing a job with a federal agency. She says even though she knows what career path she wants, the work done by the organization has taught her about the kinds of skills she will need to bring to the job.

“We work on cases an entire semester and even then you gain only an inch or two.”

“Before this I knew what I wanted to do but you go off what you think the job might be or what you see on TV,” she says. “That’s how people think cases work, that they get solved quickly. But they don’t. They come with dead ends, or some evidence gets ruined, and this organization shows you how much work it takes to solve a case. We work on cases an entire semester and even in that you gain only an inch or two.”

The mentorship provided by Earnest and Daniels has also been beneficial, according to Trevino. “For students considering joining,” she says, “you should join, no matter what the discipline. Everyone can bring different dynamics. I’s not a hinderance but a big plus.”