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Inspiring students to examine mass incarceration in the U.S.

Curriculum innovation awards will also tackle the ethics of technology
From left to right: Jennifer Lackey, Sepehr Vakil and Sarah Van Wart
From left to right: Jennifer Lackey, Sepehr Vakil and Sarah Van Wart

Jennifer Lackey, Sepehr Vakil and Sarah Van Wart have been named the 2020 recipients of The Alumnae of Northwestern University’s Award for Curriculum Innovation for helping create courses for undergraduate students to investigate mass incarceration in the U.S. as well as to incorporate ethics into the study of computer science.

Lackey, the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones professor of philosophy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will design a course that brings together undergraduates and incarcerated students currently in the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) to study the causes and consequences of incarceration in the United States. Students will be able to investigate the racial and socioeconomic roots of the criminal justice system, taking into account the punitive nature of the system and how much room there is for educational or vocational programs. 

Students will travel weekly to Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet to attend classes with NPEP students, exploring theories of punishment and gaining a valuable firsthand perspective on the issue.

Lackey is the founder and director of NPEP, the only degree-granting program in the state to provide a liberal arts curriculum to incarcerated students. NPEP is a collaboration between Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies and Oakton Community College.

Computing, ethics and society

Sepehr Vakil and Sarah Van Wart will develop an ethics course for computer science undergraduates that will consider the social and ethical implications of various technologies, including algorithms and facial recognition.

During the course, students will use real-world datasets to examine various social values within algorithms, computational techniques and design decisions, and will consider the responsibility of software engineers to act in the interest of all those affected by their products.  

Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences at the School of Education and Social Policy, has a background in electrical engineering and has long been interested in how technology and equity intersect. He argues for more conversation in schools about the broader purposes and values in STEM education. Van Wart has experience working as a software developer and designer, with a focus on collaborative urban and regional planning systems research. Her research explores approaches to broadening participation in computing that involve creative production and working with real-world data sets.

Recipients of the award will each get $12,500. The courses are expected to become available in the next academic year.

The Alumnae of Northwestern University is an all-volunteer organization of women that raises funds for a wide range of projects to benefit the University and also shares the University's academic resources with the community through its Continuing Education program. Founded in 1916, The Alumnae has given more than $9 million to the University in the form of grants, fellowships, scholarships and an endowed professorship. It also has provided funds for special university projects and summer internships. 

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