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STEMCAP Program helps ignite incarcerated youths’ interest in education

Posted at 9:26 PM, Feb 25, 2021

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Sam has been at Decker Lake Youth Center for almost a year now, and he will remain at the detention center until the summer. He came in with little hope, he said, yet will leave with a diploma and goals for his future.

“The staff and the teachers have taught me that there is more to life than the life than what I was living before I came here,” he said.

"Bad decisions and mistakes" are what led Sam to the detention center; decisions, he says, he wishes he could take back. The lifestyle he was living wasn’t safe and he didn’t see a bright future for himself, he said.

“To be honest, I saw myself in prison or dead [by 25] before I came in here,” he said.

Now, Sam is focused on education and the possibilities of what his life could look like.

“It has helped me find some ideas of what I want to do with my life, like some careers that I want, or careers that I want to pursue and places that I want to go when I get out,” he said.

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Hearing Sam’s hopes and dreams for the future had teacher Angie Wilcox tearing up.

“That is why we teach; we hope to be able to touch even just one. You hope to be able to touch even just one and make a difference,” she said while holding back tears.

A program called STEMCAP, STEM Community Alliance Program, through the University of Utah helps bring intriguing education to incarcerated youth, like Sam. Scientists, artists, and educators offer hands-on or virtual learning for students at Decker Lake and across Utah’s juvenile detention centers.

With more than one million dollars in renewed funding from the Utah State Board of Education, the STEMCAP program will continue for at least the next five years.

It really helps spark student’s curiosity, Wilcox said.

“If they can’t get those real life connections between what they are learning and what they think their life is going to be or what they think their life has been, then they can’t find the validity of learning,” she said. “If we can bring that to them and help them find those connections, so they don’t have to look at ‘why am I studying about history, why am I studying about this group of people’ and if we can help bring that connection to them, then maybe they will want to continue with their education, maybe they will want to learn more,” she said.

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Before Decker Lake, Sam did not attend school often, but through the school at Decker Lake and programs like STEMCAP, he said he is getting excited about learning and wants to further his education.

“[I enjoyed] Learning about the spiral jetty because I didn’t even know about that. I have never even been to the Great Salt Lake and I am from out here and then learning how the water is pink on the north side I think that is really cool because of the microbes and the brine shrimp and the brown fish. I think that was really interesting to know that an organism can turn something so large a certain color,” he said.

Sam is scheduled to be released in May with newfound hopes and dreams for his future.

“I see myself in college, I see myself playing football, helping my family out the best that I can,” he said.

For more information on the STEMCAP Program, click here.