How NASA Brings Space Education to Inmates

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NASA offers space science education to incarcerated youth and adults, offering lectures and hands-on activities inside detention centers. Programs like this dramatically reduce the rate of recidivism, encourage curiosity and engagement, and open up future employment opportunities for those in prison.

Daniella Scalice is the Education and Communications Officer for NASA’s Astrobiology Program, leading NASA’s “Astrobiology for the Inmates” effort in four states.

Julia Brodsky: Please tell us how the program got started.

Daniella Scalice: It all started in 2012, when at a National Geographic Symposium, I met Nalini Nadkarni, who told me about her work with incarcerated learners through his Initiative to Bring Science Programs to Inmates (INSPIRE) in the Utah. And I thought I would like to partner with her and bring astrobiology into these spaces and places. From there, Mary Voytek, senior astrobiology scientist at NASA, helped secure the seed funding to make this collaboration a reality. We brought our conferences and activities to Utah, Washington, Ohio, and Florida, spending about a week in each state visiting different facilities. We served around 1,400 adult learners and saw how this kind of informal science can have a significant impact on what people learn and how they can learn so that the knowledge stays with them.

Brodsky: Why is it so important to incarcerate science education?

Scalice: Studies commissioned by the Bureau of Justice Assistance have demonstrated the revealing effects of participation in education during incarceration. It essentially cuts recidivism by almost half and makes students more likely to find employment and engage in a productive path in society upon release. People in prison are capable learners and many have a desire to study science. But they have virtually no Internet connection and limited access to science textbooks and other sources of information, making the prison population very scientifically underserved. And it’s our responsibility as NASA to serve all Americans, no matter where they live, how they live, or what path their lives have taken them.

Brodsky: What interest in the program do you see in each location?

Scalice: Our conferences are not compulsory, so participation is voluntary, but we are seeing tremendous interest with hundreds of participants in attendance. Space enthusiasts are everywhere and the prison is no exception. They come up straight away with very sophisticated questions and often a deep knowledge of the subject. Our content is linked to our origins. We’re talking about our kinship, how we actually relate to each other and the rest of life on earth, and how that life comes from the chemistry of the planet, so we have a responsibility for this planet. And we have a relationship with all the rest of the universe, because the material that everything is made of was made in the stars. We talk a lot about adaptability, innovation, the first organisms living in harsh environments, and how biology had to invent whole new ways to survive and thrive as the environment changed. And we show how these capacities for innovation and adaptation are accessible to all.

NASA provides a lot of inspiration, and incarcerated youth and adults love that NASA comes to them. When you’ve made mistakes, our society stigmatizes you and turns you away (literally) from everyone else. It is a very traumatic experience. For example, the learners at the women’s centers revealed how deeply they were inspired by our classes and how they saw themselves moving forward. We have also received excellent feedback from the youth teachers. Everyone was excited about it, including the staff and the administration of the prison. They all wanted more.

Brodsky: How has your effort been influenced by the pandemic?

Scalice: Covid shut everything down and forced us to explore options online. We were due to travel to Florida last March and an Ohio facility was planning to bring us in as remote speakers for a 10 week course. Everything was in motion, then things got complicated with the explosion of covid cases. But the relationships are still there. Recently, the Virginia Department of Corrections found out about our work and contacted us. Another partnership has emerged with the American Corrections Association. We’ll be back in person as soon as the covid cases are gone and everyone is ready.

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