Forbes - Leadership

How NASA Is Bringing Space Education To The Incarcerated

NASA brings space science education to incarcerated youth and adults, offering lectures and hands-on activities inside detention facilities. Programs like this drastically reduce the recidivism rate, encourage curiosity and engagement, and open up future employment opportunities for incarcerated individuals. 

Daniella Scalice is the education and communications lead for the NASA astrobiology program, heading NASA’s “Astrobiology for the Incarcerated” effort in four states. 

Julia Brodsky: Please tell us how the program started.

Daniella Scalice: It all started in 2012, when at a National Geographic symposium, I met Nalini Nadkarni, who told me about her work with incarcerated learners through her Initiative to bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated (INSPIRE) in Utah. And I thought, I would love to partner with her and bring astrobiology into those spaces and places. From there, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA, Mary Voytek helped secure the seed funding to make this collaboration happen. We brought our lectures and activities to Utah, Washington, Ohio, and Florida, spending about a week at each state visiting different facilities. We served about 1,400 adult learners and saw how this kind of informal science can have a significant impact on what people learn and how they can learn to have the knowledge stay with them.

Brodsky: Why is it so important to bring science education into prison?

Scalice: The studies commissioned by the Bureau of Justice Assistance have demonstrated the eye-opening effects of engaging in education while incarcerated. It basically reduces recidivism almost by half and makes the students more likely to get a job and enter a productive pathway in society upon release. Incarcerated people are capable learners, and many of them have a desire to study science. But they have virtually no internet connection and limited access to science textbooks and other information sources, making the incarcerated population highly scientifically underserved. And it is our responsibility as NASA to serve all Americans, regardless of where they live, or how they live, or what their life’s path has brought them into.

Brodsky: How much interest in the program do you see at each location?

Scalice: Our lectures are not mandated, so participation is voluntary, yet we see a tremendous interest with hundreds of participants attending. Space buffs are everywhere, and prison is not an exception. They come right out with highly sophisticated questions and often deep subject knowledge. Our content is tied to our origins. We talk about our kinship, how we are actually related to each other and the rest of life on earth, and how this life comes from the chemistry of the planet, so we have a responsibility for this planet. And we have a relationship with everything else in the universe, because the material that everything is made of was made in stars. We talk a lot about adaptability, innovation, early organisms living in harsh environments, and how biology had to invent totally new ways to survive and thrive as the environment was changing. And we show how these innovation and adaptation capabilities are accessible to all of us.


NASA provides a lot of inspiration, and incarcerated youth and adults love having NASA come to them. When you have made mistakes, our society stigmatizes you and puts you (literally) away from everybody else. This is a very traumatic experience. For example, the learners in the women’s facilities revealed how deeply inspired they were by our classes and how they saw themselves going forward. We also got great feedback from juvenile teachers. Everybody was excited about it, including the prison staff and administration. They all wanted more.

Brodsky: How was your effort influenced by the pandemic?

Scalice: Covid shut everything down and forced us to explore online options. We were supposed to go to Florida last March, and a facility in Ohio planned to bring us in as remote speakers for a 10-week course. Everything was in motion, and then things got harder as covid cases exploded. But the relationships are all still there. Recently, the Virginia Department of Corrections found out about our work and reached out. Another partnership has emerged with the American Corrections Association. We will be back in person as soon as the covid cases are down, and everyone is ready.

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