Project Profile

STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS)


Potential STEM talent is lost each day for some of the most underserved and underrepresented populations in our nation's incarcerated men, women, and youth. With years devoid of quality STEM education and opportunities while in prison, incarcerated individuals are often significantly underprepared in STEM and for the STEM workforce. This educational debt exacerbates the pattern of marginalization for these vulnerable populations. Their STEM literacy, employability and potential for earning sustainable wages upon release are stifled. This deficit in opportunity is especially stark for underrepresented groups in the United States. Roughly 61% of the prison population is non-white, which far exceeds the national average of 35%. The U.S. also has the highest per capita incarceration rates in the world, incarcerating 698 men, women, and youth for every 100,000 people. Equally unsettling, for the first time in American history the population growth rate for incarcerated women has outpaced men by almost 2 to 1 for the past 25 years. While there are many contributing factors to the high rate of incarceration in the U.S., high quality prison STEM education programs have been shown to help counter socio-economic and education debts through greater STEM knowledge attainment, successful societal integration, and increased wage and advancement potential, which increase the likelihood that formerly incarcerated individuals and their children can live productive lives. The NSF INCLUDES STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS) Alliance endeavors to build a national network aimed at providing and supporting viable pathways to STEM for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Using a collective impact approach, the Alliance will work collaboratively with key stakeholders and the target population to advance extant and untapped knowledge on high quality prison STEM education and opportunities. This work builds on efforts supported by the National Science Foundation, including exploratory work piloted by two NSF INCLUDES Design and Development Launch Pilots. If successful, this Alliance has the potential to significantly transform the face of the STEM workforce and the narrative regarding the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated and their potential to succeed in STEM. The STEM-OPS Alliance is comprised of partner organizations committed to ensuring that STEM preparation during and post incarceration is commonplace and successful. During its first year, the Alliance will focus on establishing its national network through a shared vision and goals and a collective impact approach. It will conduct systems ecology mapping to inform the supports and resources needed for the target population to succeed in STEM. Focus groups and interviews will be conducted with incarcerated middle/high school aged youth to better understand their experiences in K-12 schools and with STEM education prior to and during incarceration. The results of the mapping and youth study will be used to inform the future work of the Alliance. Affordances the network endeavors to achieve include: (a) creating accessible STEM opportunities for the target populations through STEM courses, in-prison laboratories, research experiences for undergraduates (REUs), internships, and mentoring, (b) a culturally responsive platform to connect formerly incarcerated job seekers with STEM employment opportunities, (c) an evidence-based toolkit for effective STEM in-prison program design and implementation, (d) an annual convening of key stakeholders and representatives from the target populations to share learnings, disseminate findings and resources, and support the growth and development of the Alliance, and (d) leveraging connections to the greater NSF INCLUDES National Network. A formative and summative evaluation will be conducted by an external evaluator. Through its network, the STEM OPS Alliance is well poised to directly impact 700-880 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women and reach a significant number of organizations working to improve STEM opportunities and outcomes within prison contexts.  This NSF INCLUDES Alliance is funded by NSF Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (NSF INCLUDES), a comprehensive national initiative to enhance U.S. leadership in discoveries and innovations by focusing on diversity, inclusion and broadening participation in STEM at scale. Significant co-funding has also been provided by the NSF Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program and the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program (AISL). This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.


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Principal Investigator(s)
Primary Contact


Award Number
Project Duration
2019 - 2024
Education Development Center, Waltham, MA
Project Work State
Project Status
Thematic Group
STEM Workforce Development