From the beginning of her academic career, Gillian Knapp's internal compass was fixed on one cardinal direction: how to create equal intellectual opportunities for people independent of race or gender. As one of the first women to join the science faculty at Princeton, she has for decades served as a role model for women in STEM. She has played a central role in developing and expanding mentorship for undergraduate and graduate students in Princeton's acclaimed astrophysics department. As Director of Graduate Studies, she played a central mentoring role to Princeton astronomy graduate students. She led early efforts to make the Princeton postdoctoral fellows program diverse and inclusive, recruiting (among others) Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In 2005, Dr. Knapp's compass point turned to a new, uniquely challenging direction. Recognizing the overwhelming need for educational opportunities in prison, and in particular STEM courses, she began teaching college-level mathematics to inmates at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility. Over the past decade, while continuing her scientific research and mentoring role within Princeton University, she has built the Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI), one of the largest prison education programs in the country. Today, Dr. Knapp is not just the director, but also the heart and soul of PTI. Her mentorship and teaching for prison populations expanded in 2010 with a collaboration she initiated with the Mountainview Prison project-enrolling formerly incarcerated men and women into STEM programs at Rutgers University.
Lack of access to basic education is a primary factor in incarceration. Dr. Knapp observes that "Among inmates, 37 percent have not even attained a high school education compared with 19 percent in the general population." Each year, PTI serves roughly 250 students, and sees around 15 transfer to four-year colleges upon release. On average, it draws from a prison population of whom 60 percent are African-American, 23 percent are White, and 16 percent are Hispanic. Early on, Dr. Knapp organized PTI teachers to develop mathematics classes that prepare the students both for algebra and for future work as college students. Her mentoring philosophy for this critical population involves intensive interaction with her faculty (and hundreds of students as well) in addition to curriculum development and laboratory work for those students in the sciences. PTI engages roughly 100 STEM teachers per year.
In 2010, PTI partnered with New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP), a consortium of educational institutions in New Jersey. NJ-STEP works in collaboration with the Department of Corrections and the State Patrol Board both to provide higher education courses for students while they are incarcerated and to facilitate their transition to an institution of higher learning when they are released. Since 2013, 143 students have enrolled at Rutgers University after release, and nearly all STEM courses taken by these students have been administered by PTI. Over the course of four years, NJ-STEP plans to incorporate college-level education programs into all eligible New Jersey state prisons.