A row of students in a clasroom

Princeton Prison Teaching Initiative awarded NSF grant to promote STEM careers

Princeton students participate in a Prison Teaching Initiative training last spring as part of a combined course with incarcerated college students that was held at East Jersey State Prison. The course, “Punishment: Theory and Practice,” was taught by Benjamin Berger, who was the Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching at the University Center for Human Values in spring 2019.

The Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI) at Princeton University is one of five organizations awarded a collaborative National Science Foundation grant to build a national alliance that will forge robust pathways to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers for people who are, or were, incarcerated.

Graphic of 2 hands, one clutching bars of a jail cell, the other clutching a diploma, and text that reads, "Prison Teaching Initiative: Education for All"

The alliance, STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS), has been funded by the NSF as part of its national INCLUDES network. STEM-OPS’s vision is to make educational programming for STEM careers and college study commonplace, accessible and rigorous in U.S. prisons and reentry programs. The alliance is an expansion of work begun under an NSF-INCLUDES pilot grant, “STEPs to STEM” held by PTI under the leadership of principal investigator Jannette Carey, professor of chemistry at Princeton, who is also co-principal investigator of STEM-OPS.

Along with PTI, the five-year, $5,229,896 federal grant has been awarded to Education Development Center (EDC), From Prison Cells to PhD, Operation Restoration, and the Initiative for Race Research and Justice at Vanderbilt University. 

“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 Jenny Greene, professor of astrophysical science and PTI’s academic director since 2017. 

PTI is made up of volunteers from around Princeton University who 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 Ft. Dix Federal Correctional Institution in partnership with Mercer County Community College. Co-founded PTI in 2005 by Gillian Knapp, now an emeritus professor of astrophysical sciences, and former postdoctoral fellow Mark Krumholz, Class of 1998, today PTI is an initiative offered through Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning.

“We are particularly excited to be part of a large-scale education equity project with leaders who were previously incarcerated,” said Jill Stockwell, administrative director of PTI, “and to propagate our model of summer research internships for formerly incarcerated undergraduates on campuses throughout the nation.”

STEM-OPS has the following four main areas of focus: 

  • 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 for returning citizens.

STEM-OPS will also advance knowledge of how to provide incarcerated youth with pathways to STEM education and careers.

Each of the five STEM-OPS partners brings key expertise to the alliance, has experience working in diverse socio-geographic contexts, and participates actively in other networks that are working to address systemic challenges facing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Alliance leadership organizations include those led by STEM professionals who have been directly impacted by the carceral system. A sixth organization, Advokat Services, will conduct formative and summative evaluation of STEM-OPS. 

"I’m a formerly incarcerated person with three felony convictions, sentenced to 10 years in prison,”
said Stanley Andrisse, director and founder of From Prison Cells to PhD. “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 prophesy was a little off. It’s imperative that we offer second chances. We are missing out on talent.”