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Science Behind Bars

Biology professor, Nalini Nadkarni gives a lecture about trees to inmates in Washington prison.

March 20, 2014 — In 2013, the Justice Department reported that incarcerated inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not. Recognizing the need for these programs, the University of Utah has partnered with the Salt Lake County Jail to bring science education to inmates each month beginning March 24, 2014.

“Bringing lectures and projects delivered by scientists and engineers to incarcerated individuals is an effective way to provide experiential learning, job training and inspiration to a group of citizens who lack access to science education,” said Nalini Nadkarni, professor of biology and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the U. “These programs benefit inmates during incarceration and after their release by helping them rebuild their lives through education, and thus, helping society as a whole.”

The Initiative to Bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated, or INSPIRE, forges collaborations with scientists, jail staff, students and community partners to provide lectures, workshops, activities and hands-on science projects that focus on science, math and conservation.

“Providing science and math education in the jail will stimulate the minds and change thought processes of our prisoners,” said Captain Matt Dumont, Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Bureau. “Learning about things like energy efficiency, horticulture, plants and wildlife will increase their understanding of the world around them and help them engage in society after release. We look forward to seeing the impact of this initiative.”

During the opening lecture on March 24, Nadkarni, a forest ecologist, will discuss the diverse relationships that exist between trees and humans in Utah and around the world. She will also speak about her research involving rainforest canopies and provide information about jobs and professions related to forest science, such as arboriculture and landscaping. Topics of future lectures by other U faculty include biology in microorganisms, applications of mathematics, chemistry of air quality and other STEM topics.

“We are going to be putting a strong emphasis not only on the ‘basic science’ that we present, but also on how it might be directly applied to increase the probability of employment and usefulness to society and the environment after inmates are released,” added Nadkarni.

In 2003, Nadkarni started a similar program in the state of Washington in a single minimum-security prison, which has since expanded to include 12 state prisons in Washington, and numerous other prisons and universities in nine additional states. Since its inception in Washington, the programs have saved the prison system more than $1 million through reduced resource consumption and waste as offenders participate in sustainable operations and conservation projects.

The University of Utah, in collaboration with Evergreen State College, was awarded a $250,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to develop a national network to bring science to the incarcerated around the country and to develop INSPIRE in Utah.