Woody Plants class as an introduction to lab science for incarcerated students
New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) is an association of higher education institutions that works with NJ Department of Corrections to provide college courses inside New Jersey prisons; this work is important because higher education in prisons has been repeatedly shown to reduce recidivism rates. The Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI) has for 10 years been coordinating graduate students and professors from Princeton and Rutgers to volunteer as teachers for science and math courses for NJ-STEP, courses accredited by Mercer County Community College. The problem is that students require a lab course for completion of their two-year associates degree, but most lab sciences use equipment not permitted inside the prison. The PTI solution was a lab course, “Woody Plants”, in which students would observe botanical specimens and learn to recognize many local trees, shrubs and vines and would learn the ecology, biology, and economics of woody plants. Would students respond positively and engage in to a low-tech biology course? Would limited science backgrounds of the students prevent covering our target material? What are the logistical hurdles to such a course? We offered this course at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility to answer these questions.
Fifteen students enrolled in Woody Plants in the fall of 2014. Fifty-three percent of them stated they were taking the course because it fulfilled a requirement but they were mostly excited about the class content; 84% said they were interested in the subject (half were interested in biology, nature, or science and half were interested in plants specifically). Most students knew some plant names when the class began, but only one knew any scientific names. However, their background in science did not prevent them from achieving results in this course: the average score for this course was 93%. These results suggest that we can increase the number of specimens covered and teach the physiological and ecological concepts in more detail. We did face some logistical hurdles including not being able to bring the plants into the classroom the first week, which emphasizes the importance of thorough and consistent communication between the educators and the institution’s officials. However, subsequently, officers were supportive of our bringing in even large and unwieldy plants. We conclude that botany courses can serve as engaging, accessible, and feasible college lab courses in prisons and are repeating this course at East Jersey State Prison in 2015.