Science Education in Prison

Students at Chillicothe Women’s Correctional Center

Students at Chillicothe Women’s Correctional Center in Chillicothe, Missouri, examine
lunar rocks from NASA in Mary Haskins’ environmental science course. Photo credit: SHONA SIMPSON, CCC STAFF

When Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, started an education program last spring at the Chillicothe Women’s Correctional Center, biology professor Mary Haskins says she “jumped” at the chance to teach a semester of environmental science there. “The work is incredibly rewarding and truly life changing for all involved, especially the offenders,” she maintains.

“We provide courses…to both the offenders and to the [Chillicothe] staff ” in a separate class because “most staff don’t have college degrees, and no colleges are nearby….It’s an opportunity for both groups to earn college credit,” Haskins explains.

Only 20 prisoners were permitted to take Haskins’ course. Chillicothe is a mixed security prison, so Haskins taught both violent and nonviolent offenders ranging in age from 20 to 50. She says it is standard procedure for all volunteers to wear “a body alarm for protection…and there was a camera in the room so our activities could be monitored.”
One challenge Haskins faced was equipment approval. For her spring 2019 course, she had to have a November “‘show and describe’ session with the warden to identify ‘types’ of equipment that might be used.” In December she submitted “a complete equipment list for all of the January 2019 labs (types of equipment and numbers of all items).” She had to submit equipment lists each month for the next month’s labs thereafter.

“I was also allowed to show environmental DVDs, but the lights had to stay on, so image contrast was a challenge,” Haskins reports. And after clearing security to enter the prison, “I didn’t want to forget anything because I couldn’t run back to the university to pick it up.
“In May, I wanted to bring in lunar rocks and meteorites from NASA, a hammer, 40 pounds of flour, a laptop, a projector, and [many] other items. I made that request in March, thus allowing my long list of equipment ample time for analysis and approval, since laptops were not traditionally allowed. All of the items, including the hammer, were approved (it may have helped that I also had five assistants that day, so they could be assured the activities and equipment would be monitored). All items were counted each week by the guard at the front desk and checked against the memorandum of agreement for entry/exit,” Haskins relates.

“The limitations are restrictive and require creativity [and] a willingness to substitute some alternative labs for traditional ones,” she observes. One successful project was a benthic research project. “I placed leaf packs in a river in November, retrieved them in January, and hauled the leaf packs to the prison for analysis. Students then sorted and analyzed the data, and wrote research papers on their results.”

Sometimes Haskins’ students surprised her. “Several offenders wanted additional information and used their telephone time to ask family and friends to look up [information online]. So although the offenders couldn’t directly access the internet, they did manage to find far more information than I had expected.”

Afterward, “we prepared two posters from that work, which I presented at different scientific meetings on their behalf,” Haskins relates. “I was very proud of them, and they felt very accomplished.”

The same could be said of some male prisoners at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, Florida— even ones serving life sentences—who “cried [tears of joy] when they earned their GEDs,” recalls Pam Walker, who taught “biology, physics, and chemistry to prepare them for their GEDs.” She says she would do “demonstrations for them,” such as “showing surface tension using water droplets on a penny….[ In physics, they had to] use one piece of paper to create a tall or strong structure. [I gave them] toothpicks and water-based glue to build things with and test them with weights. I limited how much glue everyone had.”

In another lab, Walker says she taught prisoners “about scientific [methods] of approaching a problem” by having them weigh a piece of gum, “chew it for 10 minutes, and weigh it again to see where the weight went.” In addition to science, “I tried to teach them life skills, how to read a phone bill and balance a checkbook, to give them a basic education,” she notes.

When Andrea d’Aquino, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, taught incarcerated males at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, as part of Northwestern’s Prison Education Program (NPEP), she made sure her general chemistry course “would teach students about how the world works, through the lens of a chemist. I focus on topics students can relate to and care about. I want to ensure they can use what they learn.”

NPEP courses are credit-bearing and taught with content and expectations equivalent to those at Northwestern. To comply with Stateville’s equipment limitations, d’Aquino and her co-teacher “make videos of all of the labs to show in class. [In the videos,] we do everything an undergraduate would do, [including] pre-labs and post-labs,” she explains.
“Trying to tailor your teaching to different learning styles and backgrounds [is challenging]. Some students have no or little chemistry experience, while others are quite proficient at it,” d’Aquino acknowledges.

Differentiation was also arduous for Kristen Lee, now a physics teacher at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. When she taught science for Spectrum Juvenile Justice Services at the Calumet and Lincoln Centers in Highland Park, Michigan, her students were male youth ages 12 to 21 who were separated into eight “pods” by criminal offense, “so there was a substance abuse pod, a sex offender pod, [for example],” she explains.
Each pod could have both middle level and high school students. “Each grade level did [its] own thing. I had only one group doing a lab each day; the other students [in the pod] did a worksheet,” Lee recalls. She taught physical science to the middle level students and biology, chemistry, and Earth science to the older students, so she taught different subjects in the same classroom. And “everything had to be portable; the teachers moved from classroom to classroom,” she notes.

“The IT [information technology] people made websites for virtual dissections available. I had to sit next to [students] to make sure they stayed on the pages they were supposed to stay on,” Lee relates. “I did a lot of modeling with paper or other safe materials.” And for a thermodynamics lesson, “we made ice cream, which the kids really liked. There’s nothing like eating ice cream at 9 a.m. in science class,” Lee asserts.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best teacher of science  you can be.

About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of member newspaper, NSTA Reports ( Editor of Freebies for Science Teachers ( and NSTA Calendar ( pages. Follow me on Twitter: @Debra_NSTA
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1 Response to Science Education in Prison

  1. Taylor Loose says:

    Often people are victims of the environment that they find themselves in. The concept of nature vs nurture is a prime example of this. We may naturally do something, but if we have been raised to do something else or see this happening in our environment, we will follow the model before us creating a cycle. While we might think that when someone is in the prison system, they are changing the ways that put them there, all too often they end up back in jail. Through programs like this, we can help give people in prison a chance to break the cycle they find themselves in. Programs like this should be in every single prison and juvenile center in the country! Keep up the great work!

    Taylor Loose
    Wartburg College ’20
    Elementary Education
    Reading and Special Education

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