The body of an art student is discovered in a painting studio at a Main Line college. Her lips are blue, and cherry-red blood drips from the scratches on her throat. A cup of tea - still warm - sits on the workbench next to evidence that she had been forging an art masterpiece. An unfamiliar older man was seen in the hallway around the time of the crime.

The case has 28 Villanova University students scrambling for answers to identify her killer.

They have a vested interest in solving the murder. This is their final lab exam; the answer is 5 percent of their grade in their criminalistics course.

Yes, the lab session is like the one-hour television drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but it lasts three times as long.

Although many of the students are not science majors, said the instructor, Amanda Norbutus, who teaches the class with assistant professor Marta Guron, the class incorporates chemistry, biology, and physics.

The course counts toward the university's core requirement of two semesters of a laboratory-science class.

By the end of the semester, students know their way around fingerprint analysis; how to use gas chromatographic techniques to find different compounds, such as cyanide; and how to distinguish one type of fiber - such as cotton or silk - from another.

"It exposes students to a lot of analytical techniques they may not come in contact with in a general chemistry lab," said Norbutus, whose course also includes lectures.

They also discuss the evidence from highly publicized current cases, such as the August shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the disappearance of an 18-year-old University of Virginia student.

"I'm a big fan of silly things like superheroes," said Jake Steinberg, 20, an English major from Columbus, Ohio. "This is the closest I'm going to get to being the Flash."

In the Villanova case, the female "victim," identified as Marlene Dietrich, was found at 9:45 a.m. after Campus Security noticed a breach in its recording system that started about 42 minutes earlier.

The students went to work quickly, donning white coats and safety glasses, photographing the scene, putting up yellow crime-scene tape and evidence markers.

This wasn't the group's first investigation. The students have solved an arson, robbery, drug busts, and a kidnap-murder, said Norbutus.

They worked in groups to collect blood swabs, analyze a sample of tea to determine the temperature, and sweep up glass shards from the floor.

Where do you store the blood swabs? asked Norbutus.

"In a druggist fold," said Kelsey Brown, 19, of Monroe, Conn. There would be no bacteria growth using a paper druggist fold, as opposed to a hard container such as glass, she added.

Norbutus gives out more information.

The students discover a smashed smartphone at the scene. They obtain phone records and find calls to Roy Rogers, the victim's boyfriend, and a Hans Schlotten.

Rogers says Dietrich was a master's student working toward a certification as an art conservator. He thought she had finished her final project but she recently had been working late. He says that she spoke French, not German, and that he has no idea how she would have known Schlotten.

A slightly threatening letter from Schlotten is discovered under a pile of sketches, which reveal that she was working on a forgery.

"We know she has been counterfeiting artwork for monetary reasons," said Nicole Rakoff, 19, of Scarsdale, N.Y.

What could be the motive for the forgery?

"Maybe she is paying off her student loans," speculated Amanda Hejna, 20, a psychology major from Chicago, who says the class is "definitely different" from others, and who is considering forensic psychology as a career.

At the end of the lab, students have placed Schlotten at the scene of the crime. A bag was found nearby with his shoes and broken glass matching that from the lab, his fingerprints were on the letter, and there was a vial of cyanide power.

He was taken into custody by police. A sample of his hair was matched to one found on Dietrich's coat.

Case closed.

610-313-8111 @MariSchaefer