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Scientists and artists inspire curiosity and STEM learning for kids in custody

Scientists and artists find high levels of engagement and interest in connecting youth in custody to the scientific method and the natural world.

The girl’s voice is soft but confident as it bounces gently over the downtempo techno music. The message of her rhyming words is short but insistent; you can almost feel her sway as she raps:

Youth in care learned about scientific names and the history and practice of botanical illustrations and then drew their own botanical artwork.

“One thing at time
Take time save life
Holding on super tight
If I can take one step
Help a life, no regret
Stop the world from this mess …”

This slice of the song can be heard on the first episode of the podcast “Wake-up Call: Biodiversity Loss,” which was written by a handful of young women in one of Utah’s secure juvenile justice facilities. It’s the end project of a weeks-long science-focused program known as Mission STEMCAP, which pairs incarcerated and in-treatment youth with University of Utah scientists, community educators and artists.

STEM Community Alliance Program—STEMCAP—was developed by U biology professor Nalini Nadkarni, a renowned forest canopy researcher who, for more than a decade, has been bringing science and conservation education to non-traditional audiences in prisons, jails and, since 2017, Youth-In-Custody facilities. In October 2020, the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) approved $1.2 million in funding for the STEMCAP program to continue operating for the next five years.

“People in prison and jail have the least access to nature, even if they want to have access to it,” Nadkarni said of the origin of the work. “I thought I could work to bring science and nature to them.”

The idea is the same with STEMCAP: Connect youth to science and nature in ways that inspire an interest in science, technology, engineering and math topics, while helping them grow their capacity for academic achievement and self-discovery.

“There is such a strong need for enrichment for all youth who are in school, and especially youth in custody, who have greater needs and less freedom and resources to learn,” said Nadkarni.

It’s an experience that youth in custody wouldn’t get anywhere else, said Steve Kaelin, who in early 2020 retired as the Youth-in-Care program administrator for the Utah State Board of Education.

“The themes and the projects really tap into the talents and abilities and the true genius of these kids,” he said. “And then learning becomes really exciting.”

The girl in the tree

Before she was a world-famous scientist, Nadkarni was just a girl who loved to climb trees. There in the branches of the maples at her family home she found sanctuary—a place for dreaming about her future.

“It was then that I took a little oath to get a job that would let me help and protect trees,” she said. “I thought I could be a forest ranger or a firefighter.”

That love of trees grew into a love of nature.  Nadkarni devoured books and documentaries about animals and exploration. She talked to her cats (like Dr. Doolittle) and dreamed of being Jane Goodall, the scientist famous for her work with chimpanzees.

It was through teachers that Nadkarni the scientist was born. A 10th-grade high school teacher hooked her on the wonder of biology. Later, at Brown University, she threw herself into studying ecology and saw how understanding the underlying science could help solve problems in nature.

“I thought that investigating how forest ecosystems work in their natural state would allow me to help forests when they are disturbed by human activities,” said Nadkarni, who is also known as the “Queen of the Forest Canopy.”

Working with incarcerated populations was an unexpected turn. No one Nadkarni knew had ever been behind bars, but as an educator, she has been driven to share her knowledge, especially with non-academic audiences and underserved communities.

In 2003, she forged a partnership with a small men’s prison in Washington state on a moss conservation project. That lead to the Sustainability in Prisons Project, a lecture series and collaboration with conservation groups that continues today.

Youth in care working with a materials scientist to manipulate metal.

Moving to Utah in 2011, Nadkarni built on that success by launching Initiatives to bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated, or INSPIRE, in both the Utah State Prison and the Salt Lake County Jail. Inmates have since built a “refuge pond” for the Least Chub fish species, built nest boxes to protect the American Kestrel and grown 20,000 sagebrush plants for sage grouse habitat.

Her research has found that exposure to nature can improve mood and reduce acts of violence while separation from the natural world decreases our connection to stewardship.

She also found the assumption that the incarcerated lack the skills and desire to pursue education and have no interest or capacity for science to be nothing more than myth. They are interested and eager to learn.

The same is true with STEMCAP students, said Nic Shellabarger, who replaced Kaelin as Youth-in-Care Education Specialist. Students attend STEMCAP presentations as part of their school day, and Shellabarger said he’s seen enthusiastic participation in his visits to classrooms.

“The kids are excited. They’re interested,” he said. “They’re in there for their own intrinsic benefit.  The learning is different … you can see the evolution of them doing things because they want to.”

STEMCAP provides an orchestrated mix of classroom instruction and hands-on work taught by scientists, community educators and artists. The connections between science education, real-world problems in nature and an outlet for artistic expression helps students connect the dots between disciplines so that they can see themselves as capable learners who can have an impact on the world.

“It provides depth and breadth to understanding topics and problems, and reveals to students that there are multiple ways of knowing with one not being better than the other,” said Nadkarni, who also developed a treetop scientists Barbie doll and designed tree-leaf inspired clothing.

Over its four years, students across the five Utah Youth-In-Custody STEMCAP partner facilities have met scientists from NASA, grown milkweed habitat for monarch butterflies, written climate-change poetry, written letters to conservation groups, and produced a three-part podcast: Wake-up Call! working with STEMCAP’s collaborating media professional, Suzi Montgomery, and used light and chemically treated paper to make art.

In the coming year, STEMCAP hopes to make the program available to Youth-In-Custody students statewide via video and initiate a scientist-student “pen-pal” program.

The Utah State Board of Education pays the annual $250,000 cost, money that covers the salaries of a Program Manager and a part-time coordinator. About 200 students in custody participate in the program.

Learning from each other

Youth in care participated in an art-science workshop creating cyanotype paper and adding designs to their paper through exposure to sunlight.

STEMCAP differs from many other public outreach programs in that it doesn’t have a pre-determined curriculum. Scientists and artists can let their own passions and skills drive the content.

“We prioritize the students being inspired to think positively about science over specific science content,” Nadkarni said. “So, a sense of excitement about the topic is what we seek to present.”

That leaves room for students, educators and experts to learn from each other. Nadkarni saw it first-hand in the first STEMCAP presentation. A planned discussion about how water and nutrients move from the soil to treetops was scuttled after students lit up over photos of Nadkarni scaling trees with mountain-climbing gear and crossing canopy walkways.

“The students were excited about the idea of exploring an unknown world and learned how scientists have to invent new tools and ways of understanding the world when they find challenges in research,” she said. “They were also able to witness my own joy and excitement … and how I had to be tenacious in my desire to study what was not being studied at that time.”

Student questions also drove much of Austin Green’s experience with STEMCAP in a classroom of girls. A PhD candidate in conservation biology at the U, Green shared information about his conservation research project classifying the wildlife of the Wasatch Mountains and was impressed.

They were more excited and more engaged than any of the other students I’ve ever taught,” said Green, who has also led a STEMCAP teacher training.  “The girls were super interactive and asked really great questions.”

When a student asked Green why his research mattered and why she should care, he admits he was stopped in his tracks.

“It’s the kind of question you don’t think about because you’re only worried about scientific questions,” he said. “It makes you really think. And for such a simple question, the answers are kind of hard.”

Medical writer and molecular biologist Danielle Fanslow, whose previous outreach work did not include incarcerated kids or adults, had a similar experience.

Fanslow said she was nervous about finding a connection with students that would incite interest in learning. Her fears faded quickly—her female students flipped over a hands-on experiment that let them extract DNA from a strawberry and set off a lightning round of questions that showed off what they already knew about biology. 

Students also asked Fanslow how she became a scientist.

“I think we always think of scientists as men,” Fanslow said. “There’s also this idea that science is only accessible to male geniuses who have this crazy level of training. But all it really takes is just curiosity. If you like it, you can do it.”

Youth in care planted milkweed seeds to provide “waystations” for migrating monarch butterflies.

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A community educator, with no science degree, Rachel Taylor guided young men at the Decker Lake facility out of the classroom and into a greenhouse to plant milkweed seeds two years in a row. Milkweed is the primary feeding and egg-laying host plant for migrating monarch butterflies. The youth grew over 1,000 6-inch milkweed starts in 2019.

“They were into it,” Taylor said, adding that the boys were also enthralled with watching a caterpillar transform into a chrysalis and then a butterfly.

The committed effort of tending and watering the milkweed seeds over several months by the boys produced some of the healthiest and most robust milkweed Taylor said she has seen. There’s also a strong metaphor between growing milkweed, the caterpillar’s transformation and the work the boys are doing to change their own lives, said Taylor.

 “I am lucky to be connected to the program and know that it’s making a difference in their lives,” she said.

Why connection matters

Youth in care participated in an astrobiology workshop and worked in teams on a board game developed by NASA scientists.

Creating connections is a driving STEMCAP principle with parallels between students and scientists some might not expect, Nadkarni said.

“While incarcerated, many students feel forgotten, disconnected, ignored, forgotten,” she said. “Many scientists also feel isolated in their labs and field sites, so interactions with these youth can provide a greater sense of connection to people in other sectors of society, and provide a sense of greater meaning.”

Such connections between students and educators are the key to helping kids find a new trajectory, said Travis Cook, director of the Slate Canyon Youth Center in Provo, Utah. Relationships and long-term human interactions, he said draw many of us toward vocational and educational careers no matter the discipline.

“It’s rarely about content,” said Cook, a lifelong educator who came to his career through his mother, who was a teacher.

It’s the same thing that happened with Nadkarni—teachers showed her the beauty and possibility of science, which helped her find her career. Building a bridge to those opportunities through STEMCAP inspires and fosters greater academic achievement in students is invaluable, Cook said.

“That’s a lot different from a traditional classroom setting where you are teaching to the book and the test,” he said.

Shellabarger agrees and says many youth in custody students are past learning for the sake of a diploma. For those, experiences that inform their lives—and set them up with real-world tools—really matter.

For example, while STEMCAP’s lessons are all about science understanding, the scientific method of sorting through a problem works with “every other decision they are going to make in their lives,” he said.

“What are the variables? What are the likely outcomes I’m hypothesizing here? And if it doesn’t work out, what are my reflections and how do I make changes to improve this experiment of life that I’m going through.”

Bringing the community into the classroom through STEMCAP is also an equalizer between students in regular public school settings and incarcerated kids who are often forgotten or dismissed, said Kaelin.

“I really see it as essential to quality of education for our at-risk students,” he said. “Our kids are so limited.”

English teacher Bonnie Shaw, who has been working with youth in custody since 1978 said part of STEMCAP’s magic lies in the skill scientist, artists and others have had in breaking down the walls that smart, defensive kids with troubled histories build around themselves.

“For anyone to reach out to them and to treat them like they are not a throwaway, a marginalized afterthought, that is powerful,” Shaw said.  “I know it does open something up in them because they often live in a very small world and so those outside things are very meaningful.”

The proof, she said, is in the effort students put into learning and the hands-on projects they produce—the interest is real.

“They weren’t faking caring about it,” Shaw said.