October 9, 2019

University Prison Teaching Initiative Awarded $5.2M Shared Grant to Promote STEM Careers

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University’s Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI) is one of five organizations to receive a $5.2M collaborative National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to create pathways to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers for people who are or were incarcerated.

The STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS) alliance has a vision of making educational programming for STEM careers and college study commonplace, accessible, and rigorous in United States prisons and reentry programs.

The alliance is the second phase of work begun under a pilot grant, “STEPS to STEM,” held by PTI under the leadership of principal investigator Jannette Carey, Princeton University chemistry professor.

Along with PTI, the federal grant has been awarded to Education Development Center, a global promoter of education, health, and economic opportunities; From Prison Cells to PhD; Operation Restoration, supporting women and girls impacted by incarceration; and the Initiative for Race Research and Justice at Vanderbilt University.

Each partner brings a different expertise to the alliance, has experience working in diverse socio-geographic contexts, and participates actively in other networks that address systemic challenges facing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

PTI Administrative Director Jill Stockwell and Jenny Greene, Princeton University astrophysical science professor and PTI academic director, both emphasized the importance of this collaborative initiative in helping prisoners and former prisoners make the move into the STEM workplace.

“We at PTI look forward to working with the STEM-OPS Alliance to build pathways from the prison classroom to STEM careers across the United States,” said Greene.

“We’re thrilled to be part of this grant program, which is led by people who were formerly incarcerated,” Stockwell added. “We hope that STEM education will become commonplace in prisons.”

PTI is made up of volunteers from around Princeton University, mostly graduate students, but also post docs and staff members. They teach accredited college courses in New Jersey state prisons with Raritan Valley Community College and Rutgers University as part of the NJ-STEP consortium, and in the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution in partnership with Mercer County Community College.

There are currently about 150 active PTI volunteers who work in teams of two to four members, with math and science teachers teaching about 15 hours per week and humanities and social science teachers teaching six to eight hours per week during the 15-week semesters.

PTI was founded in 2005 by Gillian Knapp, now an emeritus professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, and former postdoctoral fellow and 1998 Princeton graduate Mark Krumholz, and is now offered through Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. 

Main areas of focus for STEM-OPS include STEM internships, including hands-on research opportunities at top-tier research universities for formerly incarcerated people; the development of a national model for expanding vital STEM programming into existing prison education programs; career and educational readiness workshops for STEM careers; and development of STEM mentorship and professional networks.

“I’m a formerly incarcerated person with three felony convictions, sentenced to 10 years in prison,” said From Prison Cells to PhD Director and Founder Stanley Andrisse. “I was once told by a prosecuting attorney that I had no hope for change. I am now an endocrinologist scientist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine and Howard University College of Medicine. This prosecutor’s prophecy was a little off. It’s imperative that we offer second chances. We are missing out on talent.”