Astrobiology – new directions for Scottish prison education

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser via Wikimedia Commons

Is there life elsewhere? How did life begin on Earth? What is our future? Will we eventually travel to the Moon or Mars and build settlements there? These questions are contemplated across all corners of society, from schoolchildren looking up at the sky to screenwriters in Hollywood creating the next blockbuster science fiction film. Now, a team from the UK Centre for Astrobiology (UKCA), led by Professor Charles Cockell, is bringing such discussion into prisons across Scotland through a scheme known as Life Beyond, following the success of an initial pilot in January.

The initial scheme consisted of visits to four prisons of varying levels of security, with Professor Cockell delivering a one hour lecture introducing astrobiology and Mars exploration, followed by an hour long inmate-led discussion on the crucial elements of a successful Mars mission. These visits served to test the water as to the receptiveness of the inmates to the subject material and to discover the correct level at which to pitch the learning. The feedback was uniformly positive and as such an extended four week course has been developed by the UKCA to be rolled out this May.

It is hoped that the interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology, combined with interesting and current subject matter will provide inmates with an engaging means to develop critical thinking and numeracy skills. In conjunction with this, discussion of problems such as the eventual overpopulation of Earth aims to increase the awareness of the inmates own civic responsibilities and thus aid in their rehabilitation. Whilst these may seem lofty ambitions, the feedback thus far suggests that the inmates value the program and feel that there is a place for such a scheme running in parallel with the more traditional vocation-based prison education.

An interesting facet of this project is the opportunity to use the unique experiences of inmates regarding extended periods in captivity to gain understanding of the psychological challenges any potential Martian settlement may face. Indeed their own insights on what is required to sustain a successful society on Mars may well prove to be a valuable contribution from an unexpected source.


This article was written by James Hitchen and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.


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