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It was an average Tuesday in Elmore, Ala., when Eliza Banu, mechanical engineering graduate student, arrived at Elmore Correctional Facility, a men's medium-minimum security facility. A graduate teaching assistant at Auburn with pure enthusiasm for educating, she was there to teach her first solo course, "Introduction to Engineering and Mechanics Concepts," to inmates.
Aubrey Beal, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student, had never instructed his own class before he pulled up to Easterling Correctional Facility in Clio, Ala., to teach an "Introduction to Vocational Electronics" class to more than 20 students. Nearly 80 inmates signed up to take his class at the medium security men's prison — an overwhelming response.
Banu and Beal are the first Auburn engineering students to participate in the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, or APAEP, a grant-supported outreach initiative that has brought education and creativity to several of the state's prisons since it was established in 2003. Administered by the College of Human Sciences, APAEP offers prisoners 14-week courses in poetry, creative writing, literature, performance, Alabama history, drawing and photography. For the first time, engineering was added to the slate this spring.
"We decided to open a university-wide search for graduate students to teach in our program," said Kyes Stevens, director of APAEP. "We were originally looking for only one student, but both Eliza and Aubrey applied from engineering, and there was no way we could not accept them both."
Passion for education
Stevens knew Banu was the perfect fit to teach for APAEP when her response to instructing in a men's facility was "Oh, that's OK. I just love teaching."
"And that was that," Stevens said. "Both of these students have such heart and passion for education and teaching."
Banu's passion for education — seen in her commitment to every one of her students at both Auburn and Elmore Correctional — is undeniable as she describes why she applied to teach a course with APAEP.
"I wanted to do this because I believe in the power of education," she said. "I believe in the power of reading and being informed. I believe in second chances. I knew this was something I wanted to participate in."
Having already assisted graduate-level labs and courses in Auburn's Department of Mechanical Engineering, Banu had an idea of how to run a class. This time, though, she started her introduction of engineering concepts at the beginning, explaining the various fields and disciplines of engineering, and describing to her students what an engineer generally does.
"I talk about how a main part of being an engineer is being able to work in a team, because the students had to do a lot of group projects," she said. "We talked about what it means to be a member of a team; how each person has his own role and has to help other members to fulfill the team's goal."
In lessons about vectors, velocity, acceleration, forces and equilibrium, Banu put the students' lesson on teamwork to the test as they constructed bridges made of straws and built towers made of pasta to demonstrate engineering design. "I think they enjoyed the competition," she said.
Many of Banu's students are in trade school through the prison, but as she explains, the students' levels of experience vary in the same way they would in any other classroom. Every student's prior knowledge and experiences differ from the student next to them in some way, with some students even having a background in engineering. One student showed Banu his CAD drawings he made in trade school.
"They've made amazing progress," Banu said. "It puts a big smile on my face. I have students who are learning and getting excited about understanding something."
The art of teaching
Beal saw the call for graduate students to teach in APAEP posted on a friend's Facebook page. Though he didn't think courses outside of the arts would be accepted, he wrote a proposal for an electronics course and sent it to Stevens.
"Kyes said my class needed to be accessible," Beal said. "It's difficult because my students have diverse educational backgrounds. Some people have graduated high school and some have a GED, while others have taken a semester or two of community college."
After meeting his students, Beal developed a course to introduce science using a fun, question-and-answer approach while utilizing electronics problems and demonstrations as examples. For many students, this was their first science class.
"I reinforced remedial mathematics by sneaking topics into the electronics problems, so they had a motivation to add, subtract, use exponents and understand algebra," he said. "I have talked to the students about the fundamentals, as well as the advantages of using the binary number system in machines and circuits."
But Beal quickly learned that making concepts accessible did not necessarily mean making them easy.
"At first, I made the mistake of making the problems too easy, thinking that it would make the material more accessible. Students had to read for them and find them, but the answers were there," he explained. "There wasn't a whole lot of critical thinking; it was basically whether they could fish through the material, and give me an answer on an assignment easily."
Beal was not getting thorough homework submissions, although the assignments were easy. He began reading about adult education and found that the material does not need to be easy. If it is, it is less challenging and less valuable to the students.
"Part of making it accessible was helping them to formulate a good question," he said. "I'd say, 'Let's reword your question so you get more out of your answer.' Your answer can only be as good as your question."
Because of the varying educational backgrounds, Beal was often challenged with explaining concepts in different ways to meet everyone's needs.
Then, Beal started giving his students the hard problems.
"I thought I was making it less accessible, but they weren't coming to class to learn something easy," he says. "I almost underestimated the students."
Pushing the limits more, and proving what he found to be true, Beal gave his students a hard take-home test — one student scored better than he did. "I was so proud," he said.
The appreciation of knowledge
As Banu and Beal describe their teaching experiences in their respective facilities, you would not know that their students were state prisoners unless you asked. Both spoke of their hard-working, excited and eager students with smiles on their faces as they talked about their successes.
"It is so important to teach in prisons, specifically because you are enabling graduate students to teach in an atypical setting," Stevens said. "Prison students don't take [APAEP] classes for granted. They see education as a mechanism to turn their lives around."
Sometimes, APAEP truly does ignite a spark for learning. One of Banu's students let her know that he hated trigonometry and math. But, through her class, he was challenged and is now eager to go back to trade school and take a math class because he saw the practical applications of math.
Banu recalls another student who could hardly wait to solve the next problem or attend the next class. "He would just understand everything," she said. "He would take the assignment I gave the class that was written for two weeks, and I would tell them to do only half of it, and he would do the whole thing. He wanted more work."
Students have asked Banu if there is going to be a part two of her class. "I was surprised!" she said. "It took them a long time to get used to the math and learn to focus on the concepts, so now that we have taken that barrier away and they are comfortable with the material, it's a huge victory for them."
In Beal's classroom, huge strides have been made with his students, and the vocational electronics class is the highlight of their week.
"They really look forward to coming to class and learning more, and they come with a lot of great questions," Beal said.
Beal's students are hoping for a follow-up course as well, in addition to the same course repeated again so their friends who could not enroll can have the same opportunity they had.
"There was a high demand for this class, and I think it's because it's from Auburn University. Auburn's name seemed to carry weight, and they appreciated that it was from Auburn," Beal said. "We have a positive reputation and it added a lot of value to the material."
Stevens hopes to find funds to support more engineering courses taught by the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project to offer more graduate students the same opportunity as Banu and Beal.
"Teaching with APAEP has transformed the lives of graduate students, as well as the students they educate," she said. "We want to make this teaching opportunity available for other gifted graduate students."
For more information on the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, visit www.humsci.auburn.edu/apaep.
Last Updated: July 15, 2013