Bringing astrobiology into prisons

This story, published by NASA’s Ames Research Center, originally appeared here.

“In the space sciences, we talk a lot about doing what we do for the good of all humankind—but who do we really mean when we say that?”

These sentiments from NASA’s Chief Scientist Jim Green encapsulate the idea behind one of NASA’s most unique educational programs: Astrobiology for the Incarcerated. NASA’s commitment to inclusivity, now one of its core values, means ensuring all communities and learners are involved in the search for life beyond Earth—including those who are incarcerated.

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated is an educational program that teaches incarcerated communities about the resiliency and transformative history of life on Earth, and the search for life beyond our planet. Using data collected from the program’s lectures, research published in the journal Astrobiology showed participants not only held onto what they learned, but thought of science as more a part of their lives and identity than they had previously—and expressed a desire to engage more with science in the future.

“Involving incarcerated communities in our work takes NASA’s promise seriously,” continued Green. “When NASA says humankind, we mean everyone. When we go to other worlds and look for alien life, we’re involving every community, so we can all make that journey together.”

PHOTO CREDIT: NASA

After a lecture in Washington through the Astrobiology for the Incarcerated Program an incarcerated woman has an enthusiastic question for Daniella Scalice, the program’s lead.

As the lead for education in NASA’s Astrobiology Program through Wyle Laboratories, Daniella Scalice had been developing educational materials framing astrobiology as an origin story for over a decade. When she met Nalini Nadkarni from the University of Utah, who has been expertly bringing science to incarcerated learners for nearly two decades, Scalice realized that the transformative history and future of life in the universe could be especially relevant to people within incarcerated facilities.

“The story of our cosmic origins illustrates our fundamental interconnectivity and relationality, and highlights that we’re all capable of transformation and change,” said Scalice. “Through Astrobiology for the Incarcerated, we can share these messages embedded in the science: that adaptability and resilience, in even the harshest environments, is not just possible, but fundamental to the nature of life itself.”

According to research compiled in Nadkarni and Scalice’s paper, there are over 2 million incarcerated adults and 50,000 young people in juvenile justice facilities in the United States, and those communities traditionally have little access to educational resources. The prison system also disproportionately incarcerates African American and Latinx individuals, who make up 57% of inmates despite only being 29% of the population. Upon release, formerly incarcerated individuals face strong societal biases that make employment difficult and a return to prison in the future common. Through an extended jury duty experience, Scalice grew more aware of these inequities within the justice and carceral systems. This spurred her to propose using the existing tools, mission, and platform of NASA to build meaningful relationships between the space science community and people incarcerated in the prison system.

“Working with NASA enables the potential to get this kind of science into the hands of people who might never get to learn about astrobiology otherwise,” said Nadkarni, who was also the lead author on the paper detailing the program’s results. “The collaboration has resulted in a wonderful exchange of ideas with our previous work.”

PHOTO CREDIT: NASA

Nalini Nadkarni, founder of INSPIRE, the Initiative to Bring Science Programming to the Incarcerated, visits with an inmate after a lecture in Florida.

A story of life in the cosmos for all of us

The lessons presented through the program aren’t standard astrobiology lectures.

“The presentations center on an intellectual humility that allows participants to have a far deeper connection to the content than they would otherwise,” said Scalice. “Rather than entering as scientists and saying, ‘This is how the world works,’ the lecturers created a space in which all perspectives on the fundamental questions of our universe were honored.”

The presentation for adults has three primary sections: a story of creation, a story of adaptation, and a story of exploration, all woven together to deliver a narrative of life’s origins and the search for life elsewhere.

That narrative begins with our common cosmic origins in the creation of the elements to the formation of stars like our own Sun and planetary systems like our solar system. Then lectures on the origins and evolution of life explore how life on our own planet came to be what it is today through resilience and adaptability, diving into the potential for similar processes on other worlds. The final section presents robotic planetary exploration and exoplanet discovery research, pointing toward NASA’s current and future missions to search for life in the most extreme environments of our stellar neighborhood and far beyond.

Incarcerated people practice resilience daily to survive within the extreme circumstances of the prison environment. By presenting this cosmic origin story in a way that weaves astrobiology together with perspectives from beyond the realm of science, Scalice believes it can resonate with these lived experiences and have a greater impact.

“The NASA presentation proved to be interesting, taking one out of the thought of being confined and into an awesome state of education,” said Clayton Marcus, who participated in a lecture at a correctional facility in northern Florida through the program. “I was reminded of Psalm 8:3, which reads: ‘when I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the Moon, and the stars which thou has ordained.'”

Forging stronger connections to science

Since its start in 2016, Astrobiology for the Incarcerated has engaged participants in 26 correctional facilities across the country, in Florida, Ohio, Utah and Washington. The program collected data since its start from surveying more than 1,000 adult participants. Those results showed participants not only retained new scientific knowledge from a single presentation, but developed a stronger “science identity”—a marker of how much an individual considers themselves engaged with scientific thinking and the scientific process.

Participants also indicated that they were more likely to take future actions to seek out scientific information and get involved in scientific fields of study. Research has indicated that thoughtful educational opportunities can provide opportunities for learning and personal growth while in prison—and greater job prospects after release.

Based on these results, Nadkarni and Scalice believe these informal educational programs are a low-cost, high-impact investment with positive results for the lives and livelihoods of those that participate. For NASA, programs like Astrobiology for the Incarcerated make good on the agency’s promise that our search for knowledge is truly for everyone.

“Astrobiology is inspirational for learners because it tackles big questions like what are the origins and future of life in the cosmos, and it is our responsibility to make the knowledge that we gain access to all,” said Mary Voytek, the senior scientist for NASA’s Astrobiology Program. “Education is a human right. That means no matter who you are, what you’ve done, you have a right to knowledge—and knowledge is transformative.”

Media Contacts

Nalini Nadkarniprofessor, School of Biological Sciences

Paul Gabrielsenresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
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