Working with College of Education researchers, incarcerated youth co-design their own iPad accessible STEM curriculum

Researchers in the College of Education’s Center for Youth Engagement along with partners from the Massachusetts-based Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) and the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) are collaborating in a $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project to create a digital Project Based Inquiry Science curriculum designed within the Universal Design for Learning framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for learners living in juvenile corrections facilities.


Partial image from curriculum unit on the carrying capacity of an ecosystem.

Called Project RAISE (Reclaiming Access to Inquiry-based Science Education for Incarcerated Students), the project is aimed at a population that typically does not attract the attention of researchers, practitioners, or funding organizations, said Michael Krezmien, Associate Dean, College of Education's Office of Research and Engagement, and RAISE co-principal investigator with Martina Nieswandt, UMass Amherst Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement.

Yet research suggests that failing to address the educational needs of incarcerated juveniles has broad implications for society. “Typically, these are students with many educational barriers,” said Krezmien.  “Incarcerated kids are usually those who’ve most often been left out of the education system. They haven’t had access to high quality education, they’re the ones who have often been kicked out of class, and their education has been piecemeal.”

Krezmien and Nieswandt point out that because incarcerated students frequently do not have a basic understanding of science and scientific concepts or the inquiry skills needed to support scientific thinking, they often fail the state mandated tests in science, which, in turn, prevents them from obtaining a high school diploma. “So, they are more likely to drop out, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to become dependent on public assistance and be confined in adult prisons,” Krezmien said.

“Our response to some of these educational barriers faced by incarcerated youth,such as a lack of reading skills or background knowledge needed to participate fully in a traditional science-based curriculum, is to create a virtual science curriculum, accessed by iPads, that includes supports for diverse learners,” Krezmien said.  For example, students who struggle with reading or have dyslexia access the RAISE curriculum through multimedia elements and interactive experiences, and can access text-to-speech technology and deepen their understanding of key concepts through embedded technological scaffolds and supports.

A back and forth process

The RAISE research team comprises College of Education faculty, staff, graduate students, and a tech team of ten undergraduate students from the College of Information Technology. But the actual the work of designing the virtual science curriculum is a shared process between the UMass Amherst and CAST teams and the learners in the Department of Youth Services.

There is specific content that must be included consistent with the Next Generation Science Standards, but our research team has engaged in the curricular design “by working with the people who would use it - the kids. A key piece of co-design is that it is a back and forth process,” Krezmien said.

For example, Christina Bosch, a doctoral candidate, guided the development of the driving questions for the unit on environmental science through a question generation process. “She asked the kids, What are you interested in, what is your take on science?” said Krezmien.

Back at UMass and CAST, the research and development team reviewed the questions, developed a system for evaluating the impact of the questions, and went back out to the students to revise and refine the questions. Using a rating tool to look at their responses, the researchers noticed that the questions students liked the least were the ones that received the most sophisticated answers. “We said to the students, ‘Maybe you thought this was the hardest question, but you did the best job answering it. So, maybe this is a good question after all because it got you to give the most thoughtful and invested responses,’” Krezmien said. “Those were the questions that were identified as driving questions to be included in the curriculum.”

Krezmien described another example of the co-design process. “We took paper and pencil copies of a unit on carrying capacity of an ecosystem to the students. The students said, ‘We don’t know what some of these words are. It would be good if we touched the words we don’t know and we’d get the definitions.’”

The researchers incorporated the students’ suggestions into the tablet-based curriculum and returned to the facility to test a fully developed tool with touch activated definitions of key vocabulary.

“They could see their feedback was in there,” said Krezmien. “They said, ‘You listened to us.’ For those kids, their efforts and investment in developing something is very high when they understand there are people at UMass actually responding to their thoughts and comments.”

“But you know what’s really important? The students we are working with right now also know they are not going to benefit from the curriculum they are co-designing.  It’s not going to be ready until another group of kids are there. They saw that their contribution to future learners in DYS was valuable. ‘Yeah,’ they said, ‘it will be great if other kids can benefit from something that is better.’ ” 

This work will result in improved science interest and outcomes for incarcerated learners because of the innovative approach to technological curricula implemented by the researchers, instructional designers, and programmers at the UMass College of Education and their partners at CAST and DYS. The fully-developed biology curriculum will be available for use in juvenile corrections settings or other specialized education settings nationally.

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