Brave Behind the Bars: Focuses on Computing Skills for Prison Education Program

A programming language textbook may not be the first thing you would expect to see when walking into a correction facility.

The creators of the Brave Behind Bars program are hoping to change that.

Founded in 2020, Brave Behind Bars is a pandemic-born introductory computer science and career-ready program for incarcerated women, based at The Educational Justice Institute at MIT (TEJI). It’s taught both online and in person, and the pilot program brought together 30 women from four correctional facilities in New England to study web design.

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A pilot program based on The Educational Justice Institute at MIT, and taught online and in person, brought together 30 women from four correctional facilities in New England.

One of the co-founders, Martin Nisser, a PhD student at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), explains the digital literacy and self-efficacy-focused objectives: “Some women have not had the opportunity to work . A computer for 25 years, and not yet used to using the Internet. We are working with them to build their capabilities with these modern equipment to prepare them for life outside,” says Nissar. Even for students who have recently been incarcerated, it can be difficult to keep up with the fast pace of technological progress, as technical programs in correctional facilities are few and far between.

This lack of preparation programs undoubtedly contributes to the high and rising recurrence rate: more often than not, those released from prison eventually return.

While working at TEJI, Nisser supported two of her co-founders, Marisa Gaetz (a PhD student from MIT’s mathematics department) and Emily Harberg (co-founder of Brave Initiatives, a nonprofit that developed coding bootcamps for young women). does) a casual meeting with. , This meeting led to the birth of the program, and they were later joined by eight MIT colleagues who instruct and coach the students.

Educational programs are one of the few tools to help with repetition – they have been shown to reduce repetition by 43 percent – ​​and the team-deployed nascent curriculum emphasizes practical skills that can be easily used in the workplace. Is. It was explicitly built around three foundational learning modules that supported Nisser, Getz and Harberg’s hope of setting a traditional web design curriculum into a digital literacy program that would drive success in the modern workplace after a full sentence. will promote. The core parts are core technical skills, career-ready skills, and a capstone project. Through this, students learn the fundamentals of web programming and the building blocks of digital literacy.

On the technical side, Introduction to Web Programming teaches students to build websites with core skills in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The curriculum is based on a capstone project, where incarcerated students are free to choose an issue they feel passionate about, and then create a website that addresses that problem.

For example, many women in the pilot program chose to build websites that focused on domestic violence. As Nisser relays, this is an issue that many students have struggled with personally, and students have created websites that can serve as forums not only showcasing their personal stories, but Information about links to emergency hotlines, and resources for others seeking help.

The career-ready portion of the curriculum focuses on presenting acquired skills to employers: CV writing, presentation and public speaking, with an emphasis on relevant technology-facing career paths.

Integrating more traditional methods of education has not come without challenges. Nisser notes the dizzying task of trying to find a class schedule that works for all students in the four facilities. In addition, different students are subject to different security constraints, some have access to WiFi, some do not; Some have personal laptops for most of the day, some only during class hours. Still, logistical constraints elude students. And as with every educational programme, there is a vast variability in the level of subject-specific preparation among students, but according to Nissar this is far from a deterrent.

“Many of the concepts we teach are completely new to many students. There is definitely a steep learning curve to the material, but there is an equally huge appetite for it, and these women are some of the most engaged students with I have worked. This was the first time this course was offered, and they worked tirelessly to meet the technical and logistical challenges,” says Nissar.

Beyond influencing students with newfound confidence and understanding of technical concepts, Martin sees the potential to influence future courses with the physical sides of computing. “One of our goals with the program was to instill confidence in students that there are a variety of careers open to them that they may never have had the opportunity to consider themselves before. In the future, I think of a tangible discipline like robotics Teaching the foundations of technology is a great way to catalyze interest in other tech careers as well,” says Nisser. “In the more immediate future, we want to focus on computing skills that students can take out and secure direct employment.” can also be used to. We’ll spend the next few months thinking about what those skills might actually be. ,

The program is sponsored by the PKG Center at CSAIL, MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office, The Harbus Foundation, The Coop, and the MIT Innovation Initiative.

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