The College of Science, being only one of eight polytechnic universities in the United States, is committed to community outreach. Through its multi-discipline approach, the College of Science reaches out to the surrounding region with Cal Poly Pomona's ‘learn-by-doing’ philosophy. Our faculty and students train and educate future researchers as well as collaborate with the educational community to enhance the field of science.
Teaching Math to the Most Underserved Prisoners
The classroom is filled with 60 eager students ready to learn about calculus. As they patiently wait at their desks for the teacher to come in, the students pull out their matching notebooks and pens. Some of these students are pretty advanced in math, while others are learning this material for the first time. They are polite, inquisitive, working to transform their lives, and in jail.
Dr. Jennifer Switkes, Associate Chair for the College of Science’s Math Department, is no stranger to this environment. She volunteers her time at a local prison at California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security state prison in Norco, a city in Riverside County, and has gone with teams to teach math in Uganda prisons with Prison Education Project.
Her journey to volunteering started after she received her Math and Physics degrees from Harvey Mudd College, and Ph.D. in math from Claremont Graduate University. She started teaching through a program called ‘Teach for Pomona,’ which helped bring critical STEM education to low income communities. This program, modeled after Teach for America, kicked off her teaching career at Simon’s Middle School.
Soon after she starting teaching at Citrus College as an adjunct instructor, and also taught at University of Redlands.
In the fall of 2001, Switkes came to Cal Poly Pomona and has never looked back. “I love it here, the students are amazing,” comments Switkes. She is a Provost’s Teacher-Scholar, and she serves as a McNair Scholar Research Mentor who prepares undergraduates for entrance to a PhD program.
“Jennifer is much more than an outstanding teacher, she is a multi-talented applied mathematician with a very distinguished record of research and service at Cal Poly Pomona,” adds Dr. Alan Krinik, Department Chair of Mathematics and Statistics. “During her fifteen years at Cal Poly Pomona, Professor Switkes has authored (or co-authored) nearly 30 publications over a variety of subjects (ten of these articles were written with student co-authors), and she has presented 18 professional talks. Switkes is clearly an educator who is passionate about teaching, and gives profound thought about her goals for her students and how to best achieve these objectives.”
During the summer of 2012, she went on a mission’s trip to Uganda with her church. “I fell in love with the country and people,” said Switkes. Soon after she had the opportunity to take a sabbatical for one semester to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where she taught differential equations. Her students included future math and science teachers as well as quantitative economic students.
As much as she enjoyed her time, she still wanted to give back beyond Cal Poly Pomona University. She wanted to serve the most underserved communities. Although she loved teaching at universities, she also saw the tremendous need to teach people in prisons.
What she found in teaching at both Norco and Uganda prisons is how appreciative the students are of learning new skills. This has deepened Switkes’ desire to show the prisoners that they are valuable and have gifts and abilities.
She partners with Prison Education Project (PEP) which helps inmates receive GED classes. The Prison Education Project works with 11 California correctional facilities, with the assistance of 600 university student and faculty volunteers.
Switkes bases her teaching on five values she wants represented in her instruction: excellence, honor, integrity, love and purpose. This philosophy won her the 2015 Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching which recognizes outstanding faculty accomplishments.
“Teaching prisoners skills for future jobs benefits everybody,” Switkes added. “It benefits the prisoners, and it benefits society as well to have inmates who are now learning skills and are learning respect for themselves and respect for others.”