Raising eSTEAM: An Interview with Samantha Gilbert-Janizek

“Prisons do not disappear social problems. They disappear human beings.” – Angela Y. Davis

Who is Samantha Gilbert-Janizek?

A picture showing Samantha wearing a colorful shirt.
Image 1: A picture of Samantha Gilbert-Janizek.

Samantha Gilbert-Janizek (she/her) is a rising 6th year PhD Candidate pursuing a dual title PhD in Astronomy and Astrobiology at University of Washington and founder of Raising eSTEAM, an University of Washington Prison Outreach Program. She grew up in south Florida and pursued her bachelor’s degree at University of Chicago in Physics with a Specialization in Astrophysics. During her time at her undergraduate institution, she fell in love with physics when she learned to use it to identify and explain patterns in data. This led Samantha to seek research experiences while working at the same time with middle school girls in Chicago through an organization called WYSE (Women and Youth Supporting Each other), which sparked her passion for outreach with K-12 students.

At University of Washington, she attended an astrobiology colloquium given by Daniella Scalice, the Education and Communications Lead for the NASA Astrobiology Program, who talked about her outreach work, including Astrobiology for the Incarcerated. Samantha mentioned: “it really touched me because I hadn’t heard of a ton of scientific outreach being done with incarcerated folks or in those sorts of communities and I found that to be really inspiring.” Shortly after this talk, the pandemic hit and everyone was working remotely. While people from all across the world were feeling the isolation, there have been studies that have shown that the pandemic exacerbated the isolation that incarcerated people already experience by prisons not allowing visitors as part of the pandemic protocols, which completely cut them off from the outside world. This made Samantha want to “act and reach out to this group of people that has historically been neglected not just by our government and society, but especially by STEM outreach”. Samantha alongside Hector Delgado-Diaz, met with Ms. Scalice to further refine her idea, after which she started talking with other PhD students in her program to gather interest. The result was impactful – Samantha founded Raising eSTEAM, a University of Washington Prison Outreach Program.

Raising eSTEAM: Bringing STEAM to Incarcerated Youth in Seattle

A logo that reads Raising eSTEAM
Image 2: Logo of Raising eSTEAM [Provided by Samantha Gilbert-Janizek].

Raising eSTEAM, which stands for education in Science, Technology, Engineering, Astrobiology/Art and Math, is a prison outreach program that was founded in 2021 and is comprised of astrobiology PhD students that volunteer their time to tutor incarcerated youth in the Seattle area in a wide range of topics and provide them with hands-on experiments to teach them about astrobiology. It is currently funded by Autodesk, with funds being used for transportation costs and supplies expenses. While the program has grown significantly since 2021, Samantha shares her journey of making her idea into a reality. 

At the beginning, the group of volunteers called and emailed many people working at different centers until they came in touch with a juvenile detention center. There was a lot of interest from the center to have volunteers and the program started in 2021 with volunteers coming once a week to tutor students in a wide range of topics including math, biology, chemistry, astronomy, among others. Samantha points as to how this was a strategic move on their end as it allowed them to learn how their education system works and build strong relationships not only with the students, but also with the staff of the center. 

In 2022, after approximately a year and a half of tutoring, the eSTEAM volunteers expressed their interest with the staff in offering after school programming where they could teach astrobiology concepts to students. From this, they created a lesson plan and an activity called the crystal gardens (see this activity under teaching resources here). Due to the success of the after school program, the staff invited the eSTEAM volunteers to come and teach the students every day for two full weeks in summer 2023. Through this opportunity, they created several lesson plans including a solar viewing activity where they had to draw the sun as seen through a refractive telescope with a solar filter (as seen on Image 3). All lesson plans taught to the students are available on the Raising eSTEAM website.

Drawings of Sun made by students as seen through the telescope.
Image 3: A collage of students’ drawings of the Sun as seen by them through the telescope. [Collage image provided by Samantha Gilbert-Janizek]

This year, Samantha shares that their program has developed further and Raising eSTEAM will offer a full summer coding program this summer where they will come for two hours once a week from June to August to teach coding in Python to a group of students at the juvenile detention center. 

What are the next steps for Raising eSTEAM?

Samantha envisions Raising eSTEAM growing even more and has both short and long term goals to ensure its success and sustained effort over the years. One short term goal is to recruit astrobiologists and scientists from all STEM fields that have similar stories to these young students and have experiences navigating the justice system as a child or as an adult. Her goal is to have them speak with the students so they can connect on their shared experiences, share how they navigated despite the challenges they faced and are now thriving in their careers and healing from their experiences. She mentions that kids in these centers are usually presented with careers or jobs in the trade space, and while those are viable opportunities, she also wants to highlight other career opportunities for them, especially in the sciences. 

For their long term goals, Samantha mentions that currently there are protections that do not allow for sustained contact and engagement with the students past their time at the detention centers for privacy and safety reasons, but she hopes that at some point, Raising eSTEAM can engage safely with the students beyond the detention centers as they progress through their lives. She is very interested in having Raising eSTEAM connect with them, offer them support as they apply to jobs through career advice and teach them the different career trajectories in the sciences and beyond. Lastly, Samantha hopes this program continues after she graduates from her PhD program and that she continues seeing astrobiology PhD students from University of Washington providing this support to the incarcerated youth in the Seattle area.

“There’s so many difficult questions we are trying to solve and I think the more hands on deck the better … scientists come from everywhere … I think that’s my long term dream” – Samantha Gilbert-Janizek

What are some of the most impactful experiences as a tutor and teacher through this program?

Samantha shares that moments such as the students remembering the volunteers when they return to tutor from the after school activities they previously did together shows her that the activity and their interactions made an impact in their lives. She also shares the moment another student graduated with their high school diploma and they had a beautiful ceremony to celebrate this important moment in their lives. She highlights that, “Everyone was proud of them and it’s sad that wins are infrequent in places like this. That was huge .. and I feel so lucky that we got to be a small part of their journey”

Students sitting in van.
Image 4: Left image from left to right: Autumn Downey, Megan Gialluca, Jake Kurlander, Lucas Fifer
Students sitting in van.
Image 5: Right image from left to right: Guadalupe Tovar Mendoza, Samantha Gilbert-Janizek and Samantha Garza.

All are volunteers through the Raising eSTEAM Prison Outreach Program [Images provided by Samantha Gilbert-Janizek]

Is there anything you want other people to know about programs like this and the impact it can have on the lives of incarcerated people?

When asked this question, Samantha quoted Prof. Angela Y. Davis: “Prisons do not disappear social problems. They disappear human beings.” She wants people who haven’t had the experiences themselves of going through incarceration or have had loved ones who went through incarceration to understand that statistically the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and she hopes that programs like Raising eSTEAM help to build bridges with incarcerated people who will ultimately reenter society. Samantha expresses, “My goal is to make that transition smoother for them. Surround them with love and support … and help people recover from experiences like this.” 

If you have personally gone through incarceration and/or have loved ones who have been incarcerated and would like to share your story with Raising eSTEAM, their team can be contacted through the Raising eSTEAM website. Similarly, if you’re interested in starting similar programs in your area or getting involved, the team is eager to work with you to help all individuals, including incarcerated people, learn about STEAM

Astrobite edited by Lucie Rowland

Featured image credit: Raising eSTEAM

About Junellie Gonzalez Quiles

Junellie Gonzalez Quiles is a PhD Student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Her current research focuses on modeling geochemical cycles and outgassing on exoplanets to help us understand the evolution of the atmospheric composition and its effect on planetary climate. She is deeply passionate about outreach, science communication and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Outside of work, she loves to knit, embroider, and do other arts and crafts. She also plays the trombone and enjoys practicing yoga.

Discover more from astrobites

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Leave a Reply