As a longtime teacher who’s passionate about connecting with youth, Jennifer Hastings, a Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) science teacher, often responds to those who ask how she teaches in the detention environment.
Misperceptions about what it means to live and learn on the proverbial “other side” are not uncommon, Hastings said.
“But I would say that we won a national science engineering competition, and it’s because these kids have some of the most constraints on them in their lives personally,” Hastings responds.
“Some of the most innovative and brightest students I’ve ever had are inside facilities.”
The environment Hastings is referencing is the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center in Northeast Portland, and the national contest is BreakFree Education’s “Unconstruct” Design Thinking and Cardboard Challenge. The challenge requires youth to uncover a problem and use engineer, design thinking to create a solution. Youth were required to explore the many challenges faced by homeless populations and develop housing solutions.
“We took the time to investigate and research about Portland’s homeless crisis we’ve been facing in the city, and a lot of youth could connect with that,” said Hastings. “We talked a lot about skill building around collaborative problem solving and how we can put aside our first thoughts, our first impressions, of what it means to be homeless.”
The Unconstruct project is one of many pro-social, skill-building and academic initiatives happening inside Multnomah County juvenile detention. The projects deepen connections and engage youth in their education. For over 4 years, MESD and Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division have participated in BreakFree Education initiatives, a national nonprofit dedicated to “radically improving education in the juvenile and criminal justice system,” and to helping young incarcerated students realize their full potential.
With the encouragement and support of Multnomah County staff members and MESD education assistance, the youth applied what they learned in science, which included steps to empathize with, then design a home for a particular group, family, or person experiencing homelessness. They then built a prototype following a collaborative problem-solving process.
The youth built homes suited for different households, including one for a mother with teenagers and another for youth seeking to play basketball; and another — a group home for boys experiencing homelessness. Many of the homes included accessible and sustainable design features.
“A lot of concepts came from them, seeing their ingenuity and their brilliance shine through,‘’ said Eduardo Esparza, an MESD transition specialist. “They came up with the greenhouses, the spiral staircases, and different accommodations. If anything, I learned a lot from them on this project.”
“They went all out,” said Ron Lincoln, a juvenile custody services specialist. “And it’s interesting because I got an opportunity to see some kids that have been here throw themselves into this project. They took it to a whole new level.”
The project allows students to practice Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) principles, and is also geared toward social justice and empathy. Oregon’s Department of Education requires that high school graduates receive at least three years of science and three years of math. STEM learning falls under those graduation requirements.
“Students who are incarcerated need that education,” stressed Hastings. “They need STEM. This is so important to help them in the next part of their life.”
Forty juvenile justice facilities across the country participated in the contest with one project from Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center taking first place, while another took third.
The win follows another victory for the youth who placed in the top ten for BreakFree’s Unsung songwriting competition, another national competition where students worked to “harness the power of music to create, produce, and share songs that address issues related to juvenile justice reform.”
“Most of our kids have potential,” said V Salu, a juvenile custody services specialist. "They have a lot of potential. We have great athletes who come through here. And I think for them exploring their potential and knowing what they can do, I think projects like this really bring that out.”
When asked about what stood out about his project, one of the youngest youth shared, “I thought it would be cool if the family could just go upstairs to their roof and pick apples, carrots, and never have to worry about how to pay for fruits and vegetables.”
Another, when asked about his favorite part of the project, shared, “All of it. I didn’t know what an engineer even was, but I love science and want more science, and I want to learn more about how I can make money as a scientist now.”
For Hastings, the project represents what can be achieved amid restrictions.
“Really it comes down to one of our vocabulary words, which is ‘constraints.’ And the constraints in this environment are going to differ from a traditional school.
“Given those constraints, I have seen in this group of kids, especially, the innovation that’s come out of that. They could literally use cardboard boxes and tape and think, draw, use Post-It notes to come up with these ideas. It was all-around collaboratively solving a problem that impacts us all locally.”
"There are perceptions about what it means or who is a scientist and I hope that all of my students know that I see them. I see all of my up and coming scientists, and I am thankful that there was funding set aside for content-specific teachers.”
View Flickr album of Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center Unconstruct Design Thinking and Cardboard Challenge.