Transforming Education in the Juvenile Justice System with Technology
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.”
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