New certificate course teaches Python and database fundamentals at Arizona state prison

The AZNext and Televerde Foundation partnership culminates in a remote robotics project.

Molly Loonam

Collin Sellman describes his experience teaching the The AZNext Python and Database Essentials certificate course as a “Dead Poets Society” moment.

On the final day of class, students cheered while watching a live video feed showing robots slowly driving around a large square in Sellman’s garage. The eight students, all incarcerated women at the Arizona State Prison in Perryville, used Python, a general-purpose coding language, to code and control the robots remotely.

“It was definitely the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve had,” says Sellman, a faculty associate of information systems. “The class was about learning Python and technical skills, but it was also about doing something hard that students probably didn’t think they could do.”

The course was a collaboration between AZNext, a W. P. Carey public-private partnership focused on innovative and sustainable workforce development, and the Televerde Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing professional development and workforce training programs to currently and formerly incarcerated women.

“I believe anyone can learn technical skills if given the opportunity; this was a great example,” Sellman says. “Most of the women had never heard of Python before this course.”

Throughout the 11-week certificate course, students learned to solve realistic, open-ended problems with Python and Structured Query Language (SQL). Sellman designed the curriculum to build student confidence in addition to teaching Python concepts.

“Something we discussed on the first day of class was that a ‘fixed mindset’ says, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ but a ‘growth mindset’ says, ‘I’m going to try, and it might be difficult, but eventually I’ll see progress’,” says Sellman. “That was a big part of the overall course.”

Closing the ‘homework gap’

Keeping with the growth mindset, Sellman says he’s passionate about finding solutions for affected students, including incarcerated people, by closing the “digital divide,” which disproportionately affects people without technology and internet access, limiting their employment and educational opportunities. His part-time position at ASU enables him to do this.

Sellman is chief executive officer at Fireline Science, a data science-enabled research and development company committed to closing the digital divide for students in underserved communities through expanded access to digital learning products. Through funding from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Seedfund, Fireline Science created Tuneni (toon-nee). This interactive, offline learning platform supports academic recovery for students regardless of their access to reliable home internet. Using a variety of digital media and interactive learning tools, students complete assignments and review instructor feedback through a web-based offline operating system (OOS). Students submit homework assignments by syncing Tuneni with an internet connection, often provided by their school.

Sellman first recognized the need for Tuneni during the COVID-19 pandemic. While visiting his father, an elementary boarding school principal on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, shelter-in-place orders forced students to return home and begin remote learning. Since 75% could not access reliable home internet, many students struggled to access Zoom classes and fell behind in their coursework.

“The technical term is ‘homework gap.’ There are 12 to 18 million students who don’t have home internet access,” says Sellman. “We submitted a grant to the NSF to build this technology that would allow students with limited or no internet access to still do work at home.”

Tuneni’s focus is K-12 education, but after learning about the prison’s unreliable internet access, Sellman incorporated the platform into the certificate course via ASU’s AZNext program.

“Ultimately, we consider our role as helping students and communities connect to innovative digital learning experiences,” says Sellman. “I hadn’t thought about incarcerated people as one of those communities until learning about the AZNext opportunity.”

Women in STEM

A robotics project was not part of Sellman’s original curriculum plan. But when students voiced interest in programming a robot, he partnered with Viam, a software development company that provides small robots and a programming platform that supports Python, to make it a reality.

Pictured: Display of the live robot’s video feed.

For the final robotics project, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Fireline Science monitored the robots in Sellman's garage (top right and left). Students input code into Tuneni, which was then deployed to the robots via Viam’s application protocol interface (bottom left). Students monitored their robots via the live video feed as the robots attempted to photograph a toy pigeon located in a 3-meter square (bottom right). The project enabled students to observe the differences between simulated and actual robot behavior while implementing their Python and SQL knowledge.

“It’s one thing to write programs, but it’s a whole other thing to see your program in the real world,” says Sellman. “When they wrote their programs, the robots didn’t drive completely straight or turn exactly 90 degrees. From a STEM perspective, it’s a critical lesson that shows how models and the real world are different things.”

Sellman says it was important to make the course accessible to his students as Python beginners and women studying STEM. “While we’re making progress to close the gender gap in STEM fields, only 16% of bachelor’s degree holders in computer and information sciences are women, and only 21% of degree holders in engineering are women.

“As far as careers in technology, most of these women had no idea that this was something they could do that could potentially lead to higher paying jobs,” continues Sellman, who hopes the course exposes the women and their families to job opportunities in IS.

“My experience working with the women and the Televerde Foundation was super rewarding,” says Sellman. “This is a story about people's capability, and even though there were challenges dealing with the prison and technology, it’s an experience I would not have traded. I’m looking forward to doing more in the future.”

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