Bretl teaches college-level robotics course to prison inmates


This spring, CSL Associate Professor Timothy Bretl taught “Introduction to Robotics” to a group of 13 eager students. For three hours every Friday night, the students studied rigid motions, homogenous transformations, velocity kinematics, motion planning, control and other fundamentals in the AE482/ECE470 course.

But these students weren’t taking the class to graduate with an engineering degree -- many of them hadn’t laid eyes on cosines, the Pythagorean theorem or matrix algebra in two decades, if ever. Rather, they were inmates at Danville Correctional Facility who were taking the course as part of the UIUC-sponsored Education Justice Program, which aims to bring higher learning to prisoners and provide outreach to inmates’ families in Chicago.

“They were amazing in their ability to learn,” said Bretl, an associate professor of aerospace engineering, whose course was EJP’s first foray into engineering instruction. “These students completed a variant of the same lab that we do at the university. It wasn’t ‘dumbed down’ at all.”

While the students tackled the same problems as Illinois students, Bretl and a group of student volunteers from Illinois did have to adapt the labs to work in the unique environment. They were not allowed to bring robots into the facility and computer and network access for inmates – the norm for Illinois students – was extremely limited. Bretl and his group revised the lab manual to focus more on data analysis rather than robotic programming, though the underlying content remained the same. And instead of hands-on time with robots, students watched videos of robots in motion.

Bretl teaching inmates
Bretl teaching inmates

For Bretl, the experience underscored the importance of providing education to the U.S. prison population, which stands at roughly 2.2 million people, according to a 2012 article. Inmates' access to higher education was limited after Congress revoked their eligibility for Pell Grants in 1994. Reformers believe that education helps improve recidivism rates by making it possible for inmates to rejoin the mainstream after leaving prison.

“These students were just like everyone else, with a whole range of abilities, goals and motivations,” Bretl said. “It was inspiring to see the level of ambition and ownership among this group.”

He also used the experience to refine and rethink his teaching methods in general. As most of the students did not have a strong background in math, Bretl had to describe concepts in a different way, though he credits the students with devising the most successful methods themselves.

He got involved in the program after being inspired to action during the Occupy Wall Street movement over the past few years. The application process was rigorous, but one he would encourage other engineering colleagues to pursue.

“At this stage of my life, it’s difficult to join a movement like that, but when I saw this program, I saw a way to impact people in a way that corresponds to my values and that I’m qualified to do,” Bretl said. “It is the perfect opportunity to make a difference.”

Bretl teaching inmates
Bretl teaching inmates