Assistant Professor of Technology, Engineering, and Design Education Daniel Kelly Uses CAREER Grant to Blend Robotics and Social-emotional Learning to Improve Education for Students in the Juvenile Justice System

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Hundreds of thousands of youth in the United States are involved in the juvenile justice system, learning in prisons or alternative education programs. As a teenager, NC State College of Education Assistant Professor of Technology, Engineering, and Design Education Daniel Kelly was almost one of them, he says.

It’s that experience that drives his passion for reforming and improving education for students who are in the custody of the state — a specialized population that has historically been difficult for educators and researchers to access. 

“I was two days away from being in that type of environment when I was a kid and that’s what motivates me. I was two days away, and I got really lucky, ended up in a really good group home and didn’t end up in one of these facilities,” he said. “I was also a teacher who experienced these kids in my classroom. I’ve been on both sides of this thing, and we need to change it.”

Students who have educational experiences in the juvenile justice system, in particular, are limited in the resources they have access to and are usually housed in a classroom with other students of different ages and academic abilities, Kelly said. Additionally, when released from a juvenile facility, the barriers for re-entry into a traditional K-12 school are so difficult that most end up never returning, he said. 

Kelly is working to change some of these outcomes through his work on a $587,700 National Science Foundation CAREER grant entitled “Integrating Robotics and Socio-emotional Learning for Incarcerated Middle School Students.”

The project aims to develop a robotics program built on the principles of social-emotional learning tailored to middle school students in the juvenile justice system while also training pre-service teachers to mentor this specific population. 

The project stems from previous work Kelly did with students in the juvenile justice system while he was an assistant professor at Texas Tech University. The curriculum is rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy and uses the programming of robots to help students understand the idea of triggering events and responses both in the context of the machines and their own emotional reactions. 

“Robots have a triggering event, so that could be pressing a button or, with some robots, you talk to it, and it will do what you want. So, we talk about those triggering events and then we ask the students what pushes their buttons; what a triggering event looks like for them and what their reactions are,” Kelly said. “We just step through that, and we get them to see that their body is going through this series of steps every time, and getting them to think about how they can change the output just like we changed it with the robot. We’re tying it very directly to those things and trying to get them to see these connections without going into detail about specific events.”

While students who have participated in the previous incarnation of this program learn about STEM concepts as well as their emotions, pre-service teachers who participate are learning how to bring social-emotional learning into their content instruction. 

Many pre-service teachers don’t have access to students who have spent time in the juvenile justice system until they are in their own classrooms and, therefore, are not prepared in advance for how to work with these special populations, Kelly said. 

When bringing pre-service teachers into these facilities through his work in Texas, Kelly said the college students often felt nervous or even fearful of interacting with youth who, in some cases, may have committed serious crimes. They also often harbored stereotypes about the students in the facility, assuming they would be hard to work with and uninterested in learning. 

What pre-service teachers would learn through the experience, however, was that the students were eager to participate, and the group of college students often developed a sense of empathy for the students in difficult situations that they will later be able to apply in their own classrooms. 

“The goal is that they don’t see these kids and want them to be removed from the classroom because that’s what happens in schools and, if it happens enough times, the kid goes somewhere else. It’s important for these pre-service teachers to empathize with the fact that maybe the ‘difficult’ kids in their classroom are going through more than they can see and try to relate to them,” Kelly said. “We’re teaching the teachers how they can bring these competencies into their classrooms while still covering the content.” 

Through his CAREER grant, Kelly will implement a similar robotics program within a juvenile justice facility in North Carolina and examine how participation changes the STEM identities and perceptions of the importance of education for students in the juvenile justice system. The project will also explore whether or not participation in the program correlates to reduced rates of these students returning to the juvenile justice system. 

Although his previous work in juvenile facilities did not track the ultimate outcomes of youth participants, Kelly said he received frequent reports from teachers and other adults who worked with these students that the students talked more about seeing college as an option for their future. 

His hope is that the work not only encourages youth in the juvenile justice system, as well as their teachers, but also inspires other researchers to conduct work around these populations in order to continue improving academic experiences for them. 

“I think the more programs that we have that are working with these very specialized populations, the more we can develop the relationships with these agencies and providers so that we can create those access pipelines so that people can open these doors and keep them open for more and more work that ultimately benefits the kids,” Kelly said.

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