Students thought in silence as they worked out the age of a distant star. When it came time to vote on the answer, only about 50% of the class answered correctly.
“Nope. You’re not there yet. Talk to your partner. Convince them you’re right,” University of Arizona astronomy professor Ed Prather said bluntly.
Chairs scraped the tile and chatter rose as students clustered to deliberate. Prather hovered about the groups, stopping only when summoned or when a conversation devolved into frustration. When the students voted again, nearly all were correct. Their cheeks pulled their lips tight into proud smiles. Their palms, which sprouted from orange sleeves, collided in high-fives.
The students are incarcerated at the Rincon Unit of the Arizona State Prison Complex – Tucson. They’re participating in the Prison Education Project, an initiative of the University of Arizona Department of English funded by Barbara Martinsons to expand educational opportunities for inmates in the local state prisons. Martinsons taught sociology and American history in prisons in New York each summer. She donated to the project because she wants to help the university expand its commitment to prison education.
The project began in spring 2017, when a team of faculty and graduate students taught a non-credit English course in the Whetstone unit. More than two years later, the project has expanded to include an English course, anthropology course, a writer’s workshop and a faculty speaker series on a wide range of topics across multiple units.
Prather teaches general education astronomy courses for non-science majors at the university and is serving as interim program administrator for the Prison Education Project while English assistant professor Marcia Klotz is on sabbatical. Prather took his college-level lessons in to teach stand-alone astronomy classes in both the Rincon and Whetstone units this fall.
When Prather visited Whetstone and Rincon, nearly 50 students attended each – the program’s highest turnouts.
“It’s about opening our horizons and expanding our mindsets. I can take these lessons home to my kids,” said Shane Jackson, an incarcerated student at Rincon who also attends weekly writing classes. “We need him to come back again. The University of Arizona gives us a chance and sees us not as inmates, but as people.”
Arizona law permits funding for prison-based vocational and GED courses, but not college credit, according to Celeste O’Brien, program coordinator of the Prison Education Project. Just as Prather and other program speakers volunteer their time, attendance is optional for incarcerated students. Some attended his most recent fall lectures because they were interested in astronomy. A few admitted they wandered in to pass the time, but seemed just as glad to have done so as those who anticipated his arrival.
“Every University of Arizona lecturer I’ve talked to is amazed at how engaged the students are,” O’Brien said.
From Research to Outreach
Prather’s research focuses on astronomy education. One of his main objectives is to create learning environments that trigger emotional responses in students to motivate their learning and draw them in to make meaningful connections with the content. He accomplishes this in university lecture halls, Arizona prisons and classrooms abroad filled with Buddhist monks.
He evokes emotion by having students work through problems in groups, giving real-time feedback on class performance and curating a teaching persona self-described as a cross between a tough coach and game show host.
“I think each classroom feels similar because any group I teach is going to have to play my game, and that means answering out loud, talking with their group members, making predictions, laughing, and being a part of the interactions, because I’m orchestrating an environment in which humans behave that way,” Prather said. “It’s like bar trivia in different bars. Each bar has its quirks, but everyone learns and has fun playing the same game.”
“Ed makes it fun," Jackson said. "He interacts with us and talks to us like we’re human.”
Prather’s most recent lessons at Whetstone and Rincon explored astronomical look-back times: It takes time for light from stars, galaxies and all other celestial objects to reach observers on Earth. The farther away an object is, the longer it takes its light to arrive. Because of this, an object appears younger than it actually is.
This also means that someone observing Earth from another location in the universe could see Earth as it once was, and how far back in time Earth appears depends on the distance of the observer. Prather described telescopes as literal time machines. He told his incarcerated students that their lives are playing out like a movie in the universe. The men nodded along, intently.
Rincon student Anthony Castro reflected on this concept: “I felt kind of nervous thinking about seeing things from light years away. What if I can look at me from that angle. What could I see? And would I be proud or ashamed?”
Prather also tries to connect with all of his students on an individual level. He starts his lectures with some personal background – he is a first-generation college student who didn’t begin classes until his mid-20s. When he did, it was basic math courses at a community college.
Before that, “I was living in a trailer, working as a crane mechanic. At the time, there was nothing good happening in my life; Most of what I was part of could have turned out badly. I get how this could happen,” he told both classes, referring to their present situations. “But I got lucky and found astronomy to invest my energy in. That changed my life.”
Education wasn’t a priority for many of the incarcerated men, either.
“I was running the streets and gangbanging. But now that I’m sober, I have the enjoyment of learning something that not only benefits me, but also my kids. It’s a good feeling,” Jackson said, adding that before he started Prather’s class, he thought astronomy was just about horoscopes and birthdates. Now he wants to learn more about the universe.
“Ed speaks our language, so it’s a lot easier to listen and understand what he’s saying because he’s not all professional and using big words,” Castro said.
Castro said the classes are important to him because they give him something new to think about. He is discovering things he never thought he’d be interested in until now.
“It takes us out of here for the moment,” he said. “We’re stuck in this place, by our own choices, but a lot of us are interested in being educated.”
After class, the men lined up and filed out of the visitor hall where the lesson was held. As they walked through the door, they shook hands with Prather, and they thanked him.