BGA outreach fund 2019

In 2018, I was awarded £250 as part of the British Geophysical Association (BGA) outreach fund to help support my prison education project, Think Like A Scientist. This blog post describes what I did with the award!

Think Like A Scientist is a 7-week course designed to improve critical thinking for people in prison and encourage independent thought. 

There is a lack of science and health education behind bars despite an apparent appetite to learn amongst the population. Education and employment have been highlighted by the Ministry of Justice as key points in reducing re-offending rates. Think Like A Scientist is engineered to be a pathway to further education for students in prison who are often hard to reach. 

Short, impactful lectures on geophysics, astronomy, the science of sleep, climate change, space missions, the universe, and artificial intelligence brings new information to the class. Through dialogic teaching methods and guided by a critical thinking framework, the students are taught to analyse current research in the field, which builds confidence in education and themselves.

Think Like A Scientist course pack (Phil Heron)

The first Think Like A Scientist course ran at HMP Low Newton, a women’s prison in Durham, UK. There was a strong desire to learn and improve among the students in every session, and it was a joy to teach. They all wanted to learn more about volcanoes, earthquakes, black holes and missions to Mars.

In setting up the first course, I had been approached to run Think Like A Scientist inside a young offender’s institute (HMYOI Deerbolt). A young offenders education program is quite geared towards employability – the jobs the residents are trained for are often for vocations such as plastering, plumbing and building. However, there is a growing number of young offenders with A-level education that require different employment paths for a successful rehabilitation into society. 

An aspect of the course I wanted to modify for HMYOI Deerbolt was to have more links to STEM employers, in particular those in the field of Geophysics. For the BGA outreach award, I wished to use the fund to bring companies on board as mentors to help young offenders work towards employment in science-based occupations.  

The students could start to build a portfolio of skills that employers will be looking for to give them an idea of what to work towards – both during and after the sessions. The plan for the fund was to facilitate meetings with various companies to strike partnerships that could be applied to the course. 

Initial identification of geophysical companies wishing to participate was difficult (despite working alongside the Geological Society) and I realized I needed additional help in trying to navigate the tricky world of employability policy after incarceration. I used a portion of the fund to travel to London to meet with Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) – the UK’s leading prison education charity. Founded in 1989, PET have given more than 40,000 awards to people in prison to help them obtain skills and qualifications. 

Prisoners’ Education Trust have been helping people in prison obtain skills and qualifications for 30 years.

In finding out about the work that PET do, it was brought to my attention the potential hypocrisy of working as an educator in prison whilst being an academic – what is the university policy on allowing people formerly in prison to go into higher education courses? The reality is, it is complicated – but PET have been working with UCAS and other higher education groups to change policy on the matter. I’m proud that the BGA fund as given me the opportunity to partner with PET – which would not have been possible without the outreach award. 

In the end, the fund was used to strike up a partnership with STEM employers Network Rail and McGinley to bring them as mentors to the students. As with everything that revolves around prison education, there are many hurdles that have to be crossed before meaningful work can be conducted. The problems with setting up a science course inside a young offenders institute were too difficult to get the employers in to act as mentors this time, but the partnership has been established thanks to the BGA. 

It was exciting (for me) that both in the HMP Low Newton and HMYOI Deerbolt classes the feedback showed that the geoscience module was the most enjoyed. The study of our evolving surface through plate tectonics and the power of earthquakes and volcanoes made for lively discussions. 

The final portion of the BGA fund was used to setup a conference that was desperately needed. Presently, there are a number of STEM activities occurring in prison education, a number of them related to astronomy (and the RAS). The goals, objectives, and teaching methods of a number of these projects are very similar, but work in almost isolation. 

Prison Education and STEM Symposium: Durham University, 29th July 2019

Rosie Reynolds of Prisoners’ Education Trust and myself decided to bring everyone working in STEM prison education together under one roof for a day. The ‘Prison Education and STEM Symposium’ explored the innovation, challenges, and opportunities in science teaching in prison, and allowed outreach professionals, prison staff, and STEM academics to bring their expertise together with a broad aim of widening participation in STEM learning across the prison estate. 

Rosie Reynolds (PET) and Phil Heron at the Prison Education and STEM Symposium (standing in front of the BGA logo) (From Prisoners’ Education Trust)

The event was a success, with 50 attendees listening and engaging with each other and a number of partnerships established. The speakers included: 

  • Jim Taylor, Programmes Director at Code 4000, an initiative teaching prisoners coding skills;
  • Dr. Mhairi Stewart, Head of Public Engagement with Research at University of St Andrews and project lead for Cell Block Science, pioneering science education programme for prisons;
  • Dr. Karen New from the Open University’s Journal Club project, who are currently pilotting their work in HMP Bure;
  • Francesca Findlater, CEO of Bounce Back, talking about their joint project with the Royal Astronomical Society to bring astronomy into prisons;
  • Dorigen Hammond, writer and producer who co-led Space is the Place at HMP Leicester;
  • Louise Dowell, Senior Librarian and HMP Leicester, who shared her experience of facilitating science projects inside; 
  • Mim Skinner (keynote), author of the book Jailbirds which accounts her interaction with teaching in prison; 
  • Dalton, recent graduate of the Think Like a Scientist programme.

Dalton very kindly spoke about the role of education in prison – “Education is the only thing in prison that gives you any form of self-worth or purpose” – and highlighted the importance of science education in particular: 

“Science is important as it shows a world we haven’t seen before, gives us knowledge of the life around us. Science educators are showing us failure is just as important as succeeding, and that science is a lot of ‘no’s to a lot of questions – but that is OK!”

Dalton talking about the power of science education in prison at Prison Education and STEM Symposium. (From Prisoners’ Education Trust)

The Symposium also allowed for a Think Like A Scientist workshop that showcased the work I have been doing to the audience of prison educators, academics, policy makers, and others. 

Think Like A Scientist workshop at the Prison Education and STEM Symposium. (From Prisoners’ Education Trust). 

In summary, the BGA outreach fund has helped me to further develop the course, for which I am very grateful. I’ve used the award to open up the course to new audiences – in particular, to STEM employers, young offenders, and the varied audience of the symposium. As a result, I’ve been able to form partnerships with the Prisoners’ Education Trust, Geological Society, Network Rail, McGinleys, HMYOI Deerbolt, and a number of other prisons around the country. 

The BGA outreach fund has allowed Think Like A Scientist to increase its scope for the future – it will be exciting to see how these new partnerships develop, and indeed how STEM education (in particular astronomy and geophysics) can grow in prisons.