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Astronomy at the Women's Prison

by Bob Joseph

The IfA has a large variety of public outreach programs. Perhaps the most unusual is a lecture series I have been giving at the Women's Community Correctional Center at Olomana for most of the past five years.

Bob Joseph
Bob Joseph

This noncredit course is part of the Total Life Recovery program developed by the women's chaplain at the prison, Bonnie Holcombe. It is principally a 12-step program that is supplemented by classes in a variety of subjects. When I offered to teach an astronomy course, Holcombe said it was just what she was looking for: Because most of the program is intensively inward-looking, she wanted to add something outward-looking to the menu of activities. Astronomy is surely the quintessential subject to do that.

My motivation for undertaking this project was a desire to use my knowledge of astronomy to do some good in the world outside of teaching and doing research at the university. Life has been very kind to me, and this is a way I can demonstrate to the women in the prison that some of us do care about them and want to help them rehabilitate themselves. The recidivism rate for correctional facilities in Hawaii is about 70 percent, but it is much lower for those in the Total Life Recovery program. I am pleased to participate in such an effective program.

The IfA has supported this program by allowing me to teach at the prison during office hours, and providing the digital projector and other materials, such as printed copies of my lecture slides.

The course covers material similar to that covered in Astronomy 110, the basic UH astronomy course, but it has no homework, only informal exams, much more discussion, and in-class exercises to help the students understand astronomical concepts. I also bring out the inflatable StarLab planetarium for one session, and we spend a class making simple telescopes like the one Galileo used. The course lasts about a year, and at the end I give each student a certificate of completion, which they really appreciate.

Teaching at the prison has been enormously rewarding. The students are engaged and appreciative. One of my former students spoke at a prison ministry fundraiser a couple of years ago. She was by then living in a halfway house. She said, "Until I had Dr. Joseph's lectures, I didn't think I could understand science. But now I am planning to attend a community college and study to be a medical technician." On another occasion, my lecture at the prison had run over the usual hour-and-a-half, and I apologized for going on for so long. One of the women replied, "Don't apologize; for the last two hours I forgot I was in prison." 

There have also been some amusing moments with my students. On one occasion I was lecturing on the solar system, and had just said that it takes Jupiter about 11 years to go round the Sun once, so a year on Jupiter is equal to 11 Earth years. One of the students commented in a quiet voice, "Good thing we're not doing time on Jupiter."