The idea for this class began back in the spring of 2014 when then undergraduate student Anika Larson, a participant in another prison education initiative called The Pen Project, asked if anyone was teaching biology at the prison. The reply she received from the director at the time, Dr. Joe Lockard, was, “No. If you want to do it, you’ll start in September.” Surprised at how fast it had been decided and approved, she quickly began to assemble a team. That’s when I, along with around ten other graduate and undergraduate students, got involved. With the help of our faculty advisor, Dr. Tsafrir Mor, we began the long process of designing our curriculum and getting our security clearances.
It was decided that our class would be held in the Browning unit of Eyman Prison. This is one of the maximum security or “supermax” units within the Arizona state prison system. For perspective, this is the unit that contains Arizona’s male death row. The inmates that participate in our class must be individually escorted to the classroom by correctional officers and either placed into an individual locked enclosure or restrained to their desk. As you can imagine, this can be a challenging teaching environment. For one thing, the class is three hours long. That’s a long time to sit at a desk, much less to remain focused on the large amount of information that’s presented. Further complicating matters is the fact that, while a few of the inmates have experience with collegiate biology topics, many haven’t studied science since middle school.
In addition to these complications, I was concerned as to whether the inmates would even be interested in what we had to teach. I mean, how relevant is ecology and biodiversity when you spend twenty-three hours a day in a concrete cell? I imagined having to speak for three hours straight with absolutely no response from the class. I think I even had one of those dreams where you look down in the middle of lecturing and realize that you’ve forgotten your pants. It turns out that my fears where completely unfounded. These are the most active and engaged students I have ever taught. Each student approaches the class as an opportunity, and they never miss a chance to ask questions or to link today’s topic with one we covered last month. These students come prepared with questions about topics that have been in the news. For example, last year we spent several lessons discussing the Ebola outbreak. We talked about what Ebola was, how it was transmitted, and why it’s so difficult to treat. All this was driven by their poignant questions. In short, they’re everything you’d want in a class.
One of the most challenging and beneficial aspects of teaching this class is the creativity it requires. For example, up until recently not all of the students could see the presentation at the same time. This forced us away from relying on PowerPoint, and pushed us to create more discussion-based lessons. While we felt that experimental design and a laboratory experience were important aspects of other collegiate-level biology courses, we obviously couldn’t bring all the materials this would require into the prison. Instead, we set it up so that the students design the experiments in class while we perform the wetlab work and bring the results back for analysis. Last spring, if you agreed to let me swab your hand for microbes and then filled out a fairly comprehensive survey asking you to list everything you had touched that day, then you were part of one of our prisoner’s datasets. Thanks!
This environment is both challenging and rewarding. We don’t always get every lesson or topic planned out perfectly, and it definitely doesn’t always go as planned. I remember teaching one particular lesson about the central nervous system. I was trying to use electronic communication as an analogy for the electrical signals conducted by neurons. I had asked the class what they thought the best way to communicate with individuals in another part of the prison complex was. I was hoping they would say something along the lines of, “pick up a phone” or “send them a text message”. I was met with a silence filled with awkward glances from student to student. It was a couple of tense minutes later that the staff member in the room laughed and said, “This isn’t a trick! Mr. Hart isn’t trying to get you to give up all your secret ways of getting messages to each other.” What was interesting, and not particularly helpful to my analogy, was that the students still didn’t come up with using a telephone. The internet and telephones simply aren’t a part of their lives. So much of teaching relies on the use of these kinds of common analogies and, occasionally, we’ll find one that just doesn’t work in this situation. We’re continually learning from our mistakes, and we get better all the time. I think this is the same with any kind of teaching.
Each lesson is a group effort. Every Monday the team of around 8 (mostly graduate) students and Dr. Mor meet with the two teachers for that week to go over the planned lesson and make suggestions. We discuss what topics should be included, and which should be left out. We exchange graded homework and quizzes and debrief about how the previous week’s lesson went. While a few of us have been teaching for both years, there were quite a few new members to join the team this year and there’s definitely room for more. If you’re interested in joining our team, please feel free to come speak with me or contact Dr. Mor directly. Teaching this class continues to be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I have ever had. If you do decide to dive in and join our teaching team, know that your efforts will be enormously appreciated. You will never find a more grateful group of students. Recently, while recording attendance for Dr. Rittmann’s CEE 361 class, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between these students and those that I teach at Eyman. While some of the students on campus regularly choose to skip, there is actually a waiting list to attend our class in the prison. I wonder what those undergraduates would think if they knew that they were less dedicated to their education than inmates in a maximum security prison.
Steven Hart is working on a Ph.D. in Civil, Environmental, and Sustainability Engineering through the Ira A Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. He conducts his research in the laboratory of César Torres in the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology.