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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SEPTEMBER  2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 1
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Doing Time
By Lynne Shallcross

ENGINEERING STUDENTS IN CALIFORNIA ARE GOING BEHIND BARS. THEY’RE TEACHING MATH TO PRISONERS.

It’s Wednesday night, time for engineering student Sean Rhea to head to class. But before he gets to the classroom, he must first show his I.D. to an armed guard. Then, as he makes his way across the grounds, he can hear the gates behind him closing, and he knows the guards in a tower high above are watching. After showing his I.D. a few more times, he finally reaches the classroom, which happens to be in San Quentin State Prison—home to almost 6,000 inmates and the state’s only gas chamber.

Rhea, who’s earning his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of California-Berkeley, goes through this process once a week with almost a dozen other UC-Berkeley engineering students so they can tutor inmates at the prison.

Rhea and his classmates volunteer in the College Program at San Quentin, which began in 1996 and is part of Patten University in Oakland. It has about 60 volunteer tutors and more than 160 inmate-students, all male, who are working toward associate of arts degrees. The engineering students usually teach math-based classes, which range from a two-part introductory math course to trigonometry and calculus.

Program director Jody Lewen says the students work hard at making inmates comfortable with math since many of them haven’t been in a classroom in years.

Despite the challenges of re-teaching the fundamentals, the volunteers say the inmates are a pleasure to teach. “They’re good students,” Rhea says. “They’re motivated and interested in learning.” The thing Rhea has to work hardest with them on is persistence. Stick with it, he tells them. A problem may seem hard at first, but after you’ve solved ones like it a few times, it becomes easier.

In a recent class, Rhea was helping a student who was struggling with a set of 10 problems. By the time he got to the last one, the class was almost over. But Rhea encouraged him to try it—and the student got it. “It was really great—I don’t think I can convey the feeling in words,” Rhea says.

The students fall in the medium-security category, but the volunteers don’t know what crimes they committed or how much time they’re serving. In the prison culture, it is considered impolite to ask. A few of the students have told their tutors that they’re in for drug-related offenses, Rhea says.

Rhea has been part of the program for two years, teaching algebra and the introductory math courses. His favorite part of the experience has been seeing a change in the attitude of the inmates. “As they walk into class, they’re not talking about whatever else was going on in the cellblock that day—they’re talking about what math problems were hard for them,” he says. “They’re beginning to talk to each other as educational peers, and they’re developing a culture of learning. It doesn’t get much more inspirational than when you see that happening.”

Lewen says the benefits of having the engineering volunteers aren’t limited to helping an inmate solve a tough algebraic equation. They also give the inmates, many of whom are working toward a four-year degree, a great view of the vast options in the field. “They’re like little snapshots of the universe of math and science today.”

Lynne Shallcross is an associate editor at Prism.

 

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