Science on the Inside

Students in the News: Stephen Fleming, Ian Traniello, Rachel Gonzalez, Coltan Parker



How neuroscience graduate students are bringing science education to youth behind bars.


RADIOS SQUAWK, issuing the murmurs of disembodied voices as a handful of students file into the small, fluorescent-lit classroom. The background noise continues as they take their seats, but the students seem unfazed.

At the front of the room, a detention officer stands at a podium, addressing the students one by one.

“It’s time for reflections. What was your goal today?”

“Ignore things that do not pertain to me,” mumbles a boy in his mid-teens.

“Keep my talk appropriate,” another says.

“Display appropriate attitude.” This from a girl in her early teens.

“You had a really good day,” the officer returns. He gives each resident their points for the day, as well as comments from other staff members, then lowers the volume on the radio, and turns the podium over to Stephen Fleming.

Fleming is at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) on a Monday night to teach science. He’s part of a group of graduate students in the Neuroscience Program at Illinois who bring STEM education to the JDC on a weekly basis.

As he gets started with his lecture on human nutrition, the students tune in slowly. Pretty soon, they’re speaking up, asking and answering questions, becoming engaged.

“Why do we eat?” Fleming asks.

“To stay alive!”

“To keep our bones strong.”

Fleming continues with a discussion of major nutrients and where they’re absorbed in the body, chalking a rough diagram on the blackboard. As the lesson veers toward the digestive tract, talk inevitably turns to poop, reminding Fleming that despite the setting, these kids are still just kids.

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The Juvenile Detention Center Outreach program, conceived by neuroscience student Ian Traniello, has been running for five years. To date, roughly a dozen neuroscience students have participated, most of whom had never taught behind bars. Now, the JDC outreach team has been on several local panels discussing their outreach work, presented posters at the annual Society for Neuroscience Meeting, and had their work highlighted in Science.

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