LAWRENCE — Over the past 40 years, the population of women in state prisons across the United States has increased by 834 percent. While men continue to be the vast majority of the prison population, the rate of incarceration of women is growing.
Of the 1 million women under some type of criminal justice supervision on any given day, 60 percent have a child under the age of 18, so it is especially important that women leaving incarceration have the knowledge and skills to find jobs or continue education. Yet their involvement in the criminal justice system interrupts such opportunities, and most post-incarceration programs connecting people to these educational and employment resources are not designed for women.
An interdisciplinary research team led by Hyunjin Seo, University of Kansas associate professor of digital/emerging media, Docking Faculty Scholar in the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, secured a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant to support research that will address this challenge. The project, “Technology Education for Women in Transition: Broadening Participation Through Innovations,” will offer evidence-based technology education for women who have been recently released from incarceration.
“I am excited to implement our technology education program to enhance their post-incarceration opportunities, in particular job searches,” Seo said. “We expect technology skills to be extremely helpful as they navigate different aspects of today’s society.”
Additional members of Seo's team:
- Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender & sexuality studies
- Megha Ramaswamy, associate professor of preventive medicine & public health
- Marilyn Ault, director of Advanced Learning Technologies in Education Consortia (part of KU’s Center for Research on Learning)
- Karin Chang, executive director of Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium (part of KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research).
KU’s work will also be supported by postdoctoral fellow Marissa Wiley and graduate and undergraduate research assistants. The team will collaborate with Baek-Young Choi and Sejun Song, both associate professors in the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research supported the preparation of the proposal to NSF and will manage the award.
The three-year technology education project will offer women in transition the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills needed for job applications, employment and other post-incarceration adjustments. In addition to taking weekly classes taught at Kansas City public libraries, women will access a member-only site and accompanying mobile application for online tutorials and virtual meetups.
“We have designed our program to respond to participants’ expressed interests and needs,” Seo said. “It will cover topics such as online resume building and online information assessment and will continue with elementary coding skills and computational thinking.”
As the participants focus on technology education, the team will also research the effectiveness of different learning modalities. They’ll study the association between the increase in knowledge and skills the women develop in technology education and how that affects their sense of self-efficacy and their perception of social support. In addition, the team will track employment and recidivism rates among participants.
Not only will this project support 300 women who are adjusting to life after incarceration, the team will develop the online tools participants use with an eye to scaling this model for STEM education. Based on the evidence the team members gather, they’ll create a body of knowledge that others can use to shape post-incarceration programs in other places. This research will answer questions about STEM learning for adults, study mechanisms to help people adjust after incarceration, identify strategies for reducing recidivism and build on existing KU research on digital inclusion for underserved populations.
“Dr. Seo’s research is impressive and exciting,” said Ann Brill, dean of KU’s journalism school. “Throughout this project, her goal has been to have a direct impact on improving the lives of the women involved as well as tackling the underlying systemic issues.”
This research team is uniquely qualified to tackle this multifaceted challenge. Seo is the director of the KU Center for Digital Inclusion, which offers technology education to underserved populations including women in transition and low-income minority older adults in Kansas and Missouri. Britton has experience researching social adjustments among underserved women and directs the Center for the Study of Injustice at KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research. KUMC’s Ramaswamy has worked with women in transition for 15 years and leads the research on several sponsored research projects offering sexual health literacy programming and other related research with women incarcerated or leaving incarceration. Ault has led numerous projects on technology education and program evaluation, and Chang brings years of experience in program evaluations, particularly for STEM education programs, to the team.
On the UMKC team, Choi has been involved in several initiatives promoting STEM education among women and underserved groups, and Song, who directs the Trustworthy Systems and Software Research Lab at UMKC, has researched trustworthy information and computing systems and software.
Follow the team’s progress on Twitter through the Center for Digital Inclusion and look for a website along with Twitter and Facebook accounts for news and information about this research and related projects.
Photo courtesy of Hyunjin Seo.