Teaching Biology in a Maximum-Security Prison Unit

Saturday, 14 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Anika Larson, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ
Several studies have found that prison education programs significantly reduce recidivism rates. According to the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC), as of 2011, approximately 62% of all inmates test below an eighth-grade reading level upon entering prison. Therefore, most routine programs at ADC-managed institutions and elsewhere in the country focus on remedial education and GED preparation, and some offer specialized liberal arts courses (e.g. creative writing). However, few, if any, are able to offer science courses to adult inmates outside the GED curriculum. Motivated by the notion that teaching science should be integral to any educational program, a group of graduate and undergraduate students at Arizona State University, with the support of faculty and in collaboration with ADC, recently launched an introductory biology course in a Level 5 (“supermax”) security unit of a state prison to supplement the literacy and GED programs currently offered. This course offers inmates an opportunity to practice literacy and math skills in a critical-thinking and problem-solving context, while also providing exposure to a science field (biology).  However, the setting poses unique challenges to the design and implementation of the curriculum (e.g., materials for hands-on activities are extremely limited for security reasons).  Scant experience in teaching science courses in high-security prison units explains the lack of readily available literature on the topic. To fill this practical and theoretical void, we are conducting a study to generate insights and recommendations based on our class. These will inform teaching practices applicable to the high-security prison environment for future implementation. Our study consists of an intake questionnaire that surveys students’ academic backgrounds and interests related to biology, measures of self-efficacy, personal goals, and expectations for the course. Follow-up surveys will also request teacher feedback. Additional data collected includes detailed weekly notes from teachers on their challenges, teaching strategies and experiences in class. An exit-survey will be given following the conclusion of the course. Preliminary data will be presented in the poster. The study is conducted with approval from ASU’s Institutional Review Board. The authors and presenter would like to express their thanks to the inmate students at the state prison, the group of dedicated volunteer teachers, and to the ADC staff – particularly Ms. Roberta Norales and Dr. Patricia Weaver – who have made the class and study possible.