Transforming Education in the Juvenile Justice System with Technology

Reclaiming access

Transforming Education in the Juvenile Justice System with Technology

A team of UMass Amherst faculty, staff, and students has developed an iPad app to engage incarcerated youth in STEM education and careers.

Xilonen Vela-Garcia works on the RAISE project on her laptop

A team of UMass Amherst faculty, staff, and students, led by College of Education Associate Professor Michael Krezmien, is in the final stages of Project RAISE, a pioneering program that will revolutionize teaching in the juvenile justice system.

Working with youth in juvenile facilities in Westfield and Dorchester, Project RAISE (Reclaiming Access to Inquiry-based Science Education for Incarcerated Students), funded by a $3 million, 5-year grant from the NSF, has developed an iPad app-based textbook to help improve the education of incarcerated high schoolers, giving them a better chance of completing their educations and building meaningful careers.

To date, there has been very little research and curriculum designed for this population of students, who are some of our most vulnerable youth. Teachers in juvenile corrections facilities have limited curriculum and resources and inadequate preparation and support. Their students have complex and disparate learning needs, a high rate of learning disabilities, and many are disengaged and lacking in reading and math skills. As the research team wrote in their abstract, “Failure to address these challenges and the broader educational needs of incarcerated juveniles has broad implications for society.” 

Failure to address these challenges and the broader educational needs of incarcerated juveniles has broad implications for society.

The goals of Project RAISE, according to Krezmien, are to help these kids to become scientific thinkers, to consider STEM as a career, and to pass the science portion of the state’s MCAS exam. 

“This project is saying that you can actually do this quite differently. The technology is the thing that suddenly separates our old model of instruction from what is really possible,” Krezmien affirms. “I think fundamentally it’s a large transformation of education.”

Associate Professor Michael Krezmien talking

Krezmien is the director of the Center for Youth Engagement and specializes in special education. His work focuses on supporting youth who are excluded from school—due to behavioral and emotional problems or incarceration—working to create better systems for educating them. RAISE grew out of one of Krezmien’s earlier projects. He worked with teens in Holyoke’s former alternative school, the Center for Excellence, taking them on science research field trips around the state. Krezmien used newly introduced iPads, loaded with math and science games, to engage the kids on the long drives. They then began integrating the iPads into the fieldwork as well, using them to help identify plants and trees, for instance, or to create field-related scavenger hunts. When the project wound down, Krezmien began to wonder if an iPad educational platform would work in the juvenile system, and RAISE was born. 

RAISE is a 5-week curriculum entirely on the iPad. The first four weeks are dedicated to the study of ecosystems. The fifth week is a STEM career pathway curriculum. 

Karen Harrington, the assistant director of the Center for Youth Engagement and a senior research fellow in the college, works closely with Krezmien on the project. She manages the grant and takes the lead in traveling to the facilities and working with the students. With a background in school counseling, she has also overseen the project’s career development curriculum. The RAISE tech lead is Jeremy Kelleher, a recent UMass graduate who started on the program during his junior year and now works full time at the college.

Postdoctoral Fellow Ally Hunter working on Project RAISE

Project RAISE includes programming, video, and content teams, made up of students from computer science, the sciences, art, communication, and special education, among other majors. They’ve also made it a priority to hire women, as they are often underrepresented on these kinds of projects, and they currently have two female programmers and three videographers.

Educating incarcerated youth comes with significant challenges. They are a highly transient group: because they may enter or leave the facility at different times, the make-up of the classroom may change from day to day. They also have significant learning challenges. According to Krezmien, 65% of incarcerated kids in Massachusetts are special education students, compared to 10-11% in the general secondary school population. In any classroom there will be a wide range of ages and great variation in the amount of education they’ve had. At best, students may have an average reading ability, and many read well below that mark. Most have been unsuccessful in school, and have had disciplinary problems and negative social experiences with peers. Finally, classroom tools are limited because students can’t use any items that might be dangerous, and can’t have access to the Internet. 

In spite of these challenges, Krezmien observes, the kids are hungry to learn. “You can feel it as soon as you get some connection to them and you start to give them something that’s interesting. You actually get highly motivated learners. You get kids who are like, ‘Yes, I need these things. Yes, I understand that the only way to get anywhere is to get an education.’”

You actually get highly motivated learners. You get kids who are like, ‘Yes, I need these things. Yes, I understand that the only way to get anywhere is to get an education.’

Michael Krezmien

To address the diversity of the classroom, the team has developing the textbook app using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. This is an approach to education that provides scaffolds and supports to enable all students to access the curriculum no matter their abilities and previous education, and offers multiple modalities for demonstrating knowledge and learning. 

A page of the textbook might include a split screen, with interactive information on one side and activities or assessments on the other. One lesson includes a world map that students click on to choose particular ecosystems to explore. Within the ecosystem they can choose different organisms to study through images, videos, stats, and text. The programmers have built in accommodation for students with learning disabilities and English language learners, such as drag-and-drop options, sentence starters, and text that users can read or hear.

Jeremy Kelleher and Michael Pavkovic work on a table for the RAISE Project

The goal of the career development portion of the RAISE curriculum is to give incarcerated youth tools for making career decisions that will lead to productive and meaningful work. Harrington started the work with an attempt at a literature review, but found nothing on the career development needs of this population. With no guide, they tried a variety of approaches, and landed on a values-based curriculum. 

In developing the curriculum, they had the kids do an exercise with cards. Each card indicated a particular value, and the kids sorted them by importance. Harrington recalls a very young student, 12 or 13, who asked if he could take his five top cards back to his cell. “When I came back the following week, he came up to me and he said, ‘Miss, every morning I look at my cards, I look at those five values of what’s important to me. And the first one [integrity]—I read that one twice,’” she recalls.

The career development curriculum they developed teaches that what it important to you as a person is likely what will be important to you in a job. It includes video interviews of professionals—especially people of color and women—discussing their STEM jobs and the educational and career pathways that led them to their positions. In the video, they do the same card exercise, showing how their values align with their particular careers. The kids are able to see themselves and their values represented in the videos, which is key in helping them envision themselves in STEM jobs in the future. 
 
Throughout the process, RAISE has been co-designed with the incarcerated kids themselves. When the team develops a component, Harrington takes it to the facilities to get feedback from the students on what they like about it and what doesn’t work for them, and then the programmers alter the content or interface accordingly. “For the students, that was so incredibly empowering—they haven’t had that experience of really being listened to in that way,” Harrington observes. “It made for a longer process, but at the end, we know that the curriculum we have speaks to the students because they have been so actively involved in creating it.”

It made for a longer process, but at the end, we know that the curriculum we have speaks to the students because they have been so actively involved in creating it.

Karen Harrington

While Project RAISE is intended to benefit incarcerated youth, a fortunate side effect is the significant professional experience it gives the UMass student developers. Krezmien has created a supportive co-working space in the Furcolo for the team and they function very much like a start-up tech company. The students are able to experience what it’s like to manage a project over a long period of time, adapting to the needs of the users and rapid technological advances.

The RAISE Project team working together

“The computer science major has taught us a lot about the theoretical side of computer science, which is incredibly important,” Kelleher observes, “But this project in particular really helps me and the programmers who we’ve hired get a really great experience year round in the software engineering—where the rubber meets the road.” Chinmay Patil, a junior computer science major and member of the tech team, agrees. “You don’t get this kind of experience in school because the projects are one offs. You don’t get that kind of scope and you don’t get to build technical design skills like that. We’re constantly learning something new.”

The programmers have already seen how this project will benefit their careers. Many have landed jobs and internships because Project RAISE is part of their resume, including Patil, who won a coveted Google internship when he was only a sophomore.

The project also allows the undergraduates to see, while still students, the impact their work can have in the world. “It’s so cool to see that what you’re doing with iPads and technology is actually making a difference in the lives of kids who go through the process of juvie,” says Samuel DuBois, a computer science and computer engineering major. “It motivates me personally to work my hardest and do my best.”

Students work on their computers together on the RAISE Project

Once the textbooks are complete, Krezmien’s team will pilot RAISE in new juvenile facilities, hopefully beginning this summer. They anticipate that it will be easy to eventually create textbooks for other high school subjects as well. Once the app is scaled up to include multiple disciplines and locations, it can transform learning in juvenile facilities, giving incarcerated kids a better chance a building a good life. 

As Harrington asserts, “We are trying to make learning engaging and exciting for these students, and we know that we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be developed.” 

We are trying to make learning engaging and exciting for these students, and we know that we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be developed.

Karen Harrington