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Life Beyond-A Program to use astrobiology to teach science and advance space exploration through prisons

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Abstract

The field of astrobiology is concerned with the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the Universe. It contains within it civilization-level questions such as: What is the future of humanity on Earth and can we successfully explore and settle other planets? As such, it offers an educational framework for both teaching basic science and for engaging individuals in questions about how society can take on its biggest challenges and opportunities. Life Beyond is a collaboration between the UK Centre for Astrobiology and the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) to take astrobiology into the prison environment. Using a pilot program across four Scottish prisons, a 4-week astrobiology course focused on designing a station for Mars was developed. Learning outcomes ranged from improvements in literacy, numeracy, and science skills to enhancing civic responsibilities. The results of the initiative are products such as Mars station designs, essays, and art, providing participants with tangible outputs. We describe the pilot initiative, the 4-week Life Beyond course, and draw conclusions about the use of astrobiology as a vehicle for teaching science and advancing social reform in the prison environment.
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Life Beyond—A Program to Use
Astrobiology to Teach Science and Advance
Space Exploration Through Prisons
Charles S. Cockell
Yair Augusto Gutierrez Fosado
James Hitchen
Hanna Landenmark
Liam Perera
Teun Vissers1
Abstract
The field of astrobiology is concerned with the origin, evolution, and distribution
of life in the Universe. It contains within it civilization-level questions such as: What
is the future of humanity on Earth and can we successfully explore and settle other
planets? As such, it offers an educational framework for both teaching basic science
and for engaging individuals in questions about how society can take on its biggest
challenges and opportunities. Life Beyond is a collaboration between the UK Centre for
Astrobiology and the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) to take astrobiology into the prison
environment. Using a pilot program across four Scottish prisons, a 4-week astrobiology
course focused on designing a station for Mars was developed. Learning outcomes
ranged from improvements in literacy, numeracy, and science skills to enhancing
civic responsibilities. The results of the initiative are products such as Mars station
designs, essays, and art, providing participants with tangible outputs. We describe the
pilot initiative, the 4-week Life Beyond course, and draw conclusions about the use
of astrobiology as a vehicle for teaching science and advancing social reform in the
prison environment.
1 All authors from School of Physics and Astronomy, James Clerk Maxwell Building, King’s
Buildings, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK, EH9 3FD.
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Introduction
Developing stimulating education programs in prisons is not only beneficial
for enhancing learning opportunities for participants, but several studies have
shown that education can reduce the percentage of individuals returning to
prison (Stevens & Ward, 1997; Jancic, 1998; Vacca, 2004; Chiras & Crea, 2004;
Esperian, 2010) and can enhance social integration after release (Hull et al.,
2000; Linden & Perry, 1983). In the United States, around 40% of released
offenders return to prison within 3 years, and up to 80% within 10 years (Davis
et al., 2013).
Crucial to developing courses and education programs is identifying
material that can inspire and hold the interest of participants. Previous studies
(Stephens, 1992) have shown that low interest in education has resulted from
a combination of factors including poor role models in high school and poor
socioeconomic conditions that reduce interest in education programs. Thus,
where opportunities exist to provide education in the context of engaging
material, there is a chance of implementing social reform of prisoners (Gorgol &
Sponsler, 2011). Gerber and Fritsch (1993) found that prison education programs
reduce criminal activity, reduce disciplinary problems within prison, and enhance
continuing learning after release. It has been estimated that each dollar invested
in prison education saves around 5 dollars in further public spending (Davis et
al., 2013). The same authors found that the chance of obtaining employment
after release from prison was 13 percent higher for prisoners who had received
correctional education. Although these numbers are difficult to corroborate
accurately, they nevertheless underscore the general qualitative point that
prison education is likely to not only improve future opportunities for prisoners,
but also to reduce society’s economic cost (Knott, 2012).
It is also worth underlining a point made by Steurer et al. (2010), in an
excellent general review on the reasons for prison education, that education
is simply good for humanitarian reasons, regardless of economic or other
quantitative measures. Thus, even if some studies give controversial or
inconclusive results on the direct benefits of education to rates of recidivism
(Linden & Perry, 1983), we may still find good reason to provide educational
opportunities for the incarcerated to enhance the environment in which they
find themselves and their opportunity for self-improvement.
A significant problem in the prison population is low self-esteem. Prisoners
from troubled backgrounds or poor socioeconomic conditions (Stephens, 1992)
often had few opportunities to develop self-confidence or to engage in activities
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that produce a measureable significant output that they can identify as a
positive contribution. Thus, types of education that can provide prisoners with
an opportunity to express latent educational interests in an engaging context
may have a positive effect on their sense of self-worth.
Science education in prisons is one approach to improving opportunities for
prisoners. Although some sciences do not have immediate vocational benefits,
which are identified as an important component of many successful prison
education programs (Linden & Perry 1983), science can be used to improve
learning skills generally, enhance the ability to think critically (Kuhn, 1993), and
develop numeracy and literacy skills. If it is linked to clear tangible outputs and
other programs, such as writing and arts, it provides a vehicle for encouraging
creativity and original thought. If science is linked to large-scale challenges
facing society, then it has the potential to be used to develop civic skills (Roth &
Lee, 2004).
In this paper we describe the use of astrobiology to improve science
education among prison inmates. Astrobiology is a science that involves
questions about the origin of life and the potential for life beyond Earth, but
within its remit are questions about the human future on Earth and its capacity
to become space-faring (Cockell, 2016a). Elements of its remit are similar to
areas of biological sciences (Coe, 2013; Hawke & Ritter, 1988), physical sciences
(Franklin, 1979; Lionberger et al., 2013), and geosciences (Sever, 2005) that
have previously been discussed as elements of science education in prison
environments.
We describe a pilot program implemented in collaboration with the
Scottish Prison Service and discuss a 4-week Astrobiology course focused on the
design of a human station for the surface of Mars. This course is focused on a
number of prison learning outcomes from numeracy and literacy skills to civic
responsibility and social engagement.
Astrobiology Pilot Program
To assess the potential use of astrobiology in prisons as a form of science
education, a pilot program was implemented in 2016. The purpose of the pilot
was twofold. First, it sought to determine the level of general interest among
participants for the field of astrobiology and space exploration and therefore
the potential for the subject in the prison environment. Second, it sought to
determine what aspects of the subject were of greatest interest to participants
and could form the focus of a more extensive course.
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The pilot program was implemented with one-off visits to four prisons in
Scotland: HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Shotts, Edinburgh, Glenochil, and Lowmoss.
Each visit consisted of the following general structure:
1. Astrobiology Lecture (1 hour). We began with an astrobiology lecture
that covered the search for life in our solar system, the extremes of
living things on Earth, the possibility of the human settlement of Mars,
and how we can achieve these objectives while solving environmental
problems on Earth. The purpose of this lecture was to provide a general
education opportunity to participants and to determine which aspects of
astrobiology were of most interest to them. The participants were able to
ask questions during the lecture.
2. Break and Discussion (20 minutes). A break provided participants with an
opportunity to relax and talk to each other about what they had heard
and to meet the Edinburgh team. During this break, we also took the
opportunity to informally find out what they thought about the lecture, its
contents, and which parts were most interesting.
3. Discussion among participants (1 hour). From the inception of Life Beyond,
we were keen to integrate group discussions into the program. This
discussion was focused on the human exploration and settlement of Mars
and the challenges that need to be overcome to build a station on the
Red Planet. The audience was split into four or five groups. There were
three 15-minute discussion sessions during which the groups discussed
the following topics:
• WhywouldwewanttogotoMarsandwhatwoulditbelikethere?
• Whatwouldyouneedtotaketosurvivethere?
• Howwouldyoubuildalong-termsocietyonMars?
Between each discussion session, the participants were brought back into
the larger group and a short plenary discussion allowed each group to
summarize what they had discovered and what they thought.
The Pilot Program Results
Following the pilot program, the participants were provided with feedback
questionnaires to determine the level of interest and engagement. The questions
asked included: Did you understand the talk? Did you enjoy the talk? Was the
talk pitched at your level? Would you be interested in an astrobiology course?
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Across the four prisons, a total of 110 participants took part. The program
was voluntary and was advertised on prison noticeboards. In summarizing the
questionnaire feedback, several general points can be made:
1. Astrobiology was highly engaging, and of those that responded there was
an overwhelming desire for more education in the subject (which also
expressed a general interest in having more science in prisons).
2. The two most exciting parts of the science were the topic of life beyond
Earth and human space exploration.
3. The length of the sessions was judged to be right (in practice the block
of time was set by prison scheduling constraints, but the attention of the
group was well maintained for this block of time).
4. The topic suited all participants, but was particularly engaging to those
long-term offenders already involved in distance learning or other
education courses.
A Prison Astrobiology Course
The results of the pilot scheme were used to formulate a more extensive course
to be run over several weeks. Several factors were taken into account during its
formation as follows:
1. The course should be extensive enough to provide a good opportunity
for learning, but not too long so as to become both a large drain on
resources (in terms of personnel time) or uninteresting for the participants.
A course involving four sessions over 4 weeks was judged to be a good
length to maintain interest, and sufficient to achieve tangible outputs.
2. The course should focus on a specific objective that would bring together
a wide diversity of science subjects and areas in a coherent fashion.
Astrobiology is a broad area and it can become diffuse if all aspects of it
are covered. Based on the response of participants to the pilot program
lecture and discussions, it was determined that designing a station for the
surface of Mars would meet this need.
3. The course should be flexible, allowing any prison to modify the content
and focus depending on the interests of participants, the resources available
at the prison, and the existing focus of learning programs (such as art,
writing, and music). Designing a Mars station provides for flexibility since
the process could be focused on any aspect of this activity, such as culture
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(art or creative writing about Mars and what it would be like to live there) or
science (the technical requirements to live on Mars).
4. The course should have outputs that are tangible and of benefit to the
participants. A Mars station design allows for a range of outputs including,
but not limited to: designs for a station, creative writing, paintings and
other artwork, poetry, science essays, and technical notes. These outputs
can be collected. In our specific case, we plan to publish them, but they
can also be displayed in prisons or used in exhibitions.
5. The educational backgrounds of the participants that took part in
our voluntary pilot program were varied, with some having already
undertaken distance-learning courses. The course should allow for anyone
with an interest in further science education to take part, but the resources
provided should allow them to dig further into material if they wish.
6. The course should cover a number of learning outcomes in terms of
literacy and numeracy skills as well as civic responsibility.
Based on the pilot program and the criteria developed above for a course
derived from it, we designed a 4-week Astrobiology Course described below.
Life Beyond—A 4-Week Astrobiology Course
The exploration and settlement of space is one of the great human adventures.
New commercial organisations and governments are travelling into space,
making this adventure very real. One question that arises from this activity is
when will humans go to Mars? Will people eventually live and work there? This
is a compelling challenge that contains within it a range of technical and cultural
dimensions that have the potential to educate and inspire people.
Life Beyond is designed to be a flexible 4-week course to accomplish a number
of learning outcomes for participants, while at the same time engaging participants
in an interesting, creative, and inspiring exercise in planning a settlement beyond
the Earth. The course can be extended beyond four weeks if there is interest.
Learning Outcomes
The outcomes of the course can be developed and focused in areas of strength
in any given prison education environment, but generally the following learning
outcomes (or a subset of them) are achieved:
• Improvescienceknowledge
• Improveliteracyskills
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• Improvenumeracyskills
• Improveorganisationalskills(studying,collatingandanalyzinginformation)
• Engageparticipantsinartprojects,includingcreativewriting
• Engageparticipantsindiscussionsaboutthelong-termgoalsofsociety
• Engageparticipantsinwhatittakestoholdtogetherasociety
These learning outcomes contribute towards skills development, knowledge,
literacy and numeracy skills, and the welfare and well-being of the participants
by providing a visionary backdrop to develop original and creative ideas.
Embedded within the exercise are ideas on civic responsibility and cohesion.
Resources for the Course
It is necessary to have some information resources for the course. These may
already be available in prisons. In the case of our program, we prescribed a set
of books listed below that we provided to prisons taking part. We also chose
books easily available online. These could be augmented or replaced by other
books. They cover a variety of aspects of Mars exploration and astrobiology and
were selected to give a range of literature covering popular science descriptions
of Mars missions, design studies for Mars missions, and astrobiology books.
Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction David Catling
Astrobiology: Understanding Life in the Universe Charles Cockell
How to Live on Mars Robert Zubrin
The Case for Mars Robert Zubrin
Martian Expedition Planning Charles Cockell
Mars: The NASA Mission Reports NASA
Human Exploration of Mars: Design Reference NASA
Architecture
Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet National Geographic
Also essential are personnel resources. The scope of the course, its length,
and the degree of spin-off into ancillary activities will be influenced by available
personnel. In terms of facilities, the core course requires a classroom or seminar-type
room. If activities in art are developed then provision for artwork may be needed.
The Objective of the Course—Design a Mars Station
Over the 4-week course, there is a single objective within which the learning
outcomes are developed. That objective is to design a station for the surface
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of Mars and consider some of the factors that will be involved in building it.
The flexibility in the course allows a prison to develop any number of possible
directions depending on the resources and teaching expertise and interest that is
available. A prison should consider how the learning outcomes can be achieved
in any given variant or style of the course.
Following is a suggested course structure based on the Edinburgh experience.
Week 1
Beginning the Course
The course begins in week 1 with an invited lecture from an external scientist
working in Mars/planetary sciences/astrobiology or a related field to set the
scene and stimulate interest in the subject.
Focus for Week 1: What do we need to live on Mars?
In week one, the participants peruse the books and begin to develop a list of
what we would need to live on Mars. Obvious things are food, water, energy,
and oxygen.
From where would you get these things? Participants consider where we
get water from on Mars, how we could grow crops, and how we might get
energy from solar power or other methods such as nuclear power. Rather than
just reading and listing them from the books, participants can probably guess
much of this from their own knowledge (we found this to be the case in our pilot
program). Therefore, there is an excellent opportunity for group discussions and
feedback. Many people may have completely new ideas. This exercise can be
used to get them to think about the environment on Mars, what it would be like
to live there, what people would need, and what some of the challenges are (for
example, radiation, large dust storms, no liquid water as most of it is ice). This
exercise is designed to get participants actively thinking about the challenges of
living on another planet.
Depending on the interest of the participants, one direction is to get them
to consider what science is behind these requirements and focus on any of these
for more in-depth discussion (for example, photosynthesis for plants, electrolysis
to break up water to make oxygen, energy from solar panels). What science do
we need to figure out how to get these things on Mars?
During this session it is worthwhile to encourage general discussion about
Mars itself and the science behind the planet’s characteristics. For example, we
might ask: Why is it colder than Earth? Why is the atmosphere thinner? There is
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an opportunity to discuss the differences between Earth and Mars and how this
influences the challenges of establishing a station there.
Week 2
Focus for Week 2: Designing a Station
In the second week the group transitions into taking the first week’s deliberations
and using them to design a Mars station. How would we link these things together
to build a station and how might we lay out the station? In particular, what else do
we need to make the station complete? For example, we need accommodation, a
kitchen, leisure and exercise areas, a library, etc. The prison environment can be
used as a basis to think about all the facilities that people need in order to keep a
group of people going. At this stage of the course, the participants are now able to
use their own experience to consider life on Mars or other planetary bodies.
Ancillary Course Activities That Can Be Started at This Point
At this stage in the course, a number of possible activities could be launched during
the course itself or as ancillary activities in other classes. A few suggestions are:
• DrawingsanddesignsforaMarsstation
• CreativewritingonwhatitwouldbeliketoliveandworkonMars
• PoetryonMars
• PaintingandartontheMarsstationdesignorjustgenerallyaboutMars
• Drama/theatre/playsonMarsexplorationandsettlement
In general, once students get underway with the Mars station design their
thoughts can be fully realized through artistic expression, and often people
have ideas and thoughts about Mars exploration that provide an opportunity to
develop art projects.
Week 3
Focus for Week 3: What Would We Do on Mars?
Once we build the station, the astronauts will need to accomplish something. In
this week participants think about what they would do at the Mars station and
across the rest of the planet. Some examples could be:
• Tendingtothestationandkeepingitgoing
• Carryingoutsciencesuchaslookingforlife(hereisanopportunitytodiscuss
life detection on Mars)
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• Planningexpeditionstothemountains,canyons,andpolaricecapsofMars
• Planningscienceexpeditionstounderstandthegeologyandpossiblyeven
habitability of the planet
• Tourism
• Sport(mayberacesacrossMartiandesertsandmountaineeringchallenges)
Students should think about why we are on Mars in the first place—what
was the motivation for going there? Then develop a program of activities for the
Mars station occupants.
Week 4
Focus for Week 4: Building a Society on Mars
In week 4, the students should explore some of the challenges in building a
long-term station on Mars. What would it take to live there over many years
once we have built our station? Obviously, the occupants would need something
to do, and for the very long term they might need schools, hospitals, and shops.
In this week, the students can expand their Mars station to a Mars society and
think about what that transition from a small station, with say 5–10 people, to a
larger society, of say 100 people, would take. What additional infrastructure and
social structures would be required?
Another aspect to consider is the conditions for society on other planets
far away from the Earth. What responsibilities would people have towards one
another living in these environments? How can they learn to work successfully
with one another on Mars? How would they care for one another in the extreme
Martian environment?
In this week, learning outcomes in civic responsibility can be developed.
The Mars station provides a backdrop to consider social cohesion and the
factors that lead to a harmonious society.
Completing the Course
The course can be ended with a Certificate of Completion.
Other Directions and Focus during the Course
Depending on the interests of the participants, other directions can be
developed. Following are some ideas and suggestions for possible areas that
could be covered. One way to expand these aspects is to let students take the
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lead with things that particularly interest them and then allow discussions and
their work to evolve in that direction.
Science
More focus could be given to science, such as the search for life, the science of
orbits, and how you would get to Mars in the first place. Any aspect of station
design such as energy or food growth could be developed. Students could even
focus an entire week on how to grow food on Mars and how to make a Mars
greenhouse. They can be given the freedom to link their ideas with things they
know about in popular culture. We all know Matt Damon’s character tried growing
potatoes on Mars in the film. What would be the challenges of doing this?
Art and Culture
Apart from developing their own art in the prison, students could also consider
what art would develop on Mars. What would it be like to be on a planet with
colours dominated by reds and oranges? What sort of culture and art might
develop?
Another aspect of culture is how Mars is depicted in films and science
fiction in the past, from HG Wells’s War of the Worlds to Andy Weir’s The Martian.
Why is there so much Mars literature and what does it tell us about ourselves
and our aspirations?
Engineering
Students might like to focus on engineering aspects—what would a workshop
need on Mars and what would we need to keep a station going? For example,
we would need tools to mend oxygen machines and rovers to drive around
on the planet. One might even consider designing a Mars rover servicing and
engineering garage for Mars.
Social Structure and Government
Course participants might consider how to build a society on Mars—would
democracy work? How would people be organised on Mars and what might be
some of the challenges in designing a society on Mars? How would schools be
designed? During our pilot scheme, in two separate prisons without prompting
participants volunteered their own ideas on how to design a prison for Mars.
The design of extraterrestrial prisons has been previously discussed in peer-
reviewed literature (Cockell 2016b). Such concepts represent a potentially
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interesting interface between social organization beyond Earth and the
experience of prisoners. If appropriate, these types of discussions can be an
excellent way for participants to use their own experiences to consider how
future human societies on other planets might be assembled.
Given that space settlements represent confined, enclosed, and almost
self-sustaining communities of people, prisons can in some respects be regarded
as Mars analog environments. A discussion on Mars station design is a non-
invasive way for participants to discuss their own experiences of confinement.
Use of Course Outcomes
The course can be run purely as an educational opportunity with its benefits
for participants. However, depending on the outcomes, course art, writing, and
design might be published as an original contribution to space exploration and
settlement either in a journal or book, making available the participant’s ideas
and creativity to the wider space community.
In a general sense, prisons share similarities with the characteristics of built
or planned stations in space: they are enclosed, require cooperation between
their inhabitants, are self-sufficient to some extent, and involve confinement.
Thus, prisoners have a unique experience of the prison as a space analog
environment and an opportunity to contribute original ideas to how these
outposts might be assembled.
Conclusion
Reducing the number of people that return to prison and enhancing the
welfare and environment of those within prisons are key objectives in prison
education. An important approach is to identify science subjects and activities
that engage participants, improve their skills in a wide variety of contexts, and
provide them with the opportunity for creative activity that enhances a sense
of accomplishment and self-worth. We have described a pilot program to take
astrobiology into the prison environment, and we describe a flexible four-week
course that uses the design of a Mars station as an inspiring and ambitious
backdrop to advance science education in prisons. By enhancing education
and science training, such a course can also contribute to a wider objective of
implementing social reform.
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Biographical Sketch
CHARLES COCKELL is Professor of Astrobiology, University of Edinburgh. His interests
encompass life in extreme environments and the exploration of space. He is editor of three
volumes that examine the conditions for liberty beyond the Earth, published by Springer.
His co-authors are PhD students and Fellows at the University of Edinburgh who have
taken part in the Life Beyond prison education course.
... It is generally a one-way experience in that the participant gains information imparted by an educator, but the participant is rarely involved in creating completely new knowledge. In prisons, this type of approach underpins most efforts in science education; and exemplars exist in, for instance, physics (Lionberger et al., 2013), biology (Hawke and Ritter, 1988), ecology (Coe, 2013), geology (Sever, 2005), and more recently in astrobiology and space exploration (Cockell, 2017(Cockell, , 2018aScalice et al., 2017;Cockell et al., 2018;Nadkarni et al., 2020). ...
... Following information gained in the pilot program, a four-phase Life Beyond course was designed. Details on the content and rationale of this course have been described previously (Cockell et al., 2018). In brief, the course was designed to consist of four discrete phases: ...
... Following this activity, the participants were given a break of a week to dwell on what they had learned. Several books were provided to the prison library (Cockell et al., 2018) so that they could augment their learning. ...
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