Bringing Cell Block Science to HMP Leicester

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Dr Marie Nugent | 15 July 2019

Learner science

Dr Marie Nugent is Public Engagement Manager at the University of Leicester and has recently worked with researchers and HMP Leicester to run an English pilot of Cell Block Science – a ground-breaking public engagement programme that brings STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) academics into prisons to deliver informal science learning . This project originated at University of St Andrews and currently operates in 6 prisons nationwide with funding from the Wellcome Trust.

I first came across Cell Block Science when attending the NCCPE’s Engage conference in Bristol in 2017. Dr Mhairi Stewart, Head of Public Engagement at St Andrew’s University, presented it as an example of mutually beneficial research engagement based on open conversations between academics and prisoners. It inspired me to visit St Andrews to see it in action for myself the following year. I was blown away by how effective and engaging the session was for everyone involved and left determined to see if I could bring the project to Leicester.

Thankfully I found Dr Ruth Hatcher, part of Leicester Prisons Research Network at the University, to help me get it off the ground. She introduced me to Louise Dowell and Alistair Fruish who work in HMP Leicester’s library and were keen to bring in something new for learners to take part in. With a fantastic team to support the project, we were able to identify various topics that were of interest to the men and match them with active researchers at the University.

I was blown away by how effective and engaging the session was for everyone involved.

Ruth and I spoke to the group about what their previous exposure was to science and research, and to identify what particular areas they were interested in. From there, I was able to approach researchers I already knew and arrange for them to be brought in for a two hour session with the learners. We decided to pilot five sessions over three weeks exploring various topics: Genetics, Psychology, Archaeology, Maths and Climate Change. I intentionally chose academics that I knew would encourage people to talk about their own views and approach the subject in a new and unexpected way. For example, the Climate Change session created debate on bias and logical fallacy. It prompted the men to think critically about who they trust to have an authoritative voice on scientific research, and why.

I intentionally chose researchers that I knew would encourage the men to talk about their own views and approach the subject in a new and unexpected way.

It was really important to me to create an environment where everyone had the chance to speak. The sessions were mainly conversation-based with some visual props to help interaction. Feedback so far from everyone involved has been incredible – with researchers gaining a new perspective on their work and the men at Leicester having had the opportunity to explore, openly with an expert, research areas that have a huge impact on society. We’re now pulling together our evaluation for the project and hope to explore funding to keep the project going.

Representatives from Cell Block Science Leicester and the founder of Cell Block Science, Mhairi Stewart, will be speaking at our Prison Education and STEM Symposium on 29th July. Book a ticket here.


This is part of the Prison University partnerships blog series, which shines a spotlight each month on an example of prisons and universities working in partnership to deliver education. If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Helena.


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