Think Like a Scientist

Think Like a Scientist

We recently spoke with Philip Heron, a geophysicist from the U.K., who also started the Think Like a Scientist program, a science course for people in prison. We were really interested in Philip’s work related to prison education and were excited to hear more about how he got the program started.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

"In high school, I was really interested in dinosaurs and volcanoes, and found math not too difficult. A teacher told me that Geophysics (the physical study of how the Earth works) might be a perfect career choice for me, and I agreed! After my undergraduate studies in Geophysics, I followed a number of other (non-academic) passions and lived in France to try to learn French. While living in Paris, I worked as an English teacher and quite enjoyed the challenge of communicating ideas in a foreign language. However, an opportunity to do a Ph.D. in Geophysics came up, and I moved to Canada to study supercontinents. At the moment, I am a research fellow at Durham University in the U.K., working on a European Union project that I managed to get funded. I look at how the Earth’s interior has evolved over time.

The work I have done outside my main career of Geophysics though has helped me in what I do now. I am passionate about communication and I have taken this into everything that I do."

I see that you have completed a Ph.D and have supervised a Ph.D. candidate. What advice do you have for someone pursuing a Ph.D.?

"I completed a Ph.D. in 2014 at the University of Toronto in Canada. I also supervise a Ph.D. student and a number of M.Sc. students and undergraduates. It is easy to get bogged down in a Ph.D., there are many stresses that come with long-term projects, especially when things aren’t going well. However, as simple as it sounds, I would try and remember that a Ph.D. is a long-term project and cannot be completed in a day.

A Ph.D. candidate needs to become an expert in their field and shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. It is normal to not know the answers and to fail in the pursuit of knowledge. However, sometimes that gets lost when you have external and internal deadlines, or if you feel that you should already know something (e.g., imposter syndrome). When it comes time to defend your work, it is important to remember that you are the expert in the room on your work – the rest of the academic community wants you to teach them your science (not tell you how dumb you are)!

Also, I would really think about what you want after your Ph.D. and try and use the position to build your skills to suit that. For example, if there is a particular methodology that you think would help you after your Ph.D., try and build some experience with it during the project."

When did you first become interested in prison education? Why do you think it is so important?

Funnily enough, I don’t have any strong connection to prisons in my personal life. However, when I was moving back from Canada to the U.K., I was moving close to my hometown. I wanted to do some science engagement within my local community, and the place where I live now (Durham) is small; it really only has a cathedral, cobble streets and coffee shops. However, there are 3 prisons in the town. I decided that this forms a large part of the local community so I would participate in the science program that the university facilitates.

Only, there wasn’t one. In fact, there wasn’t a focused science program in England for prison education. So, I decided to delve deeper and managed to go and visit prison educators and inmates and talk about it. It turns out that science is really popular in prison – people read science books and watch science documentaries – but an actual taught science class is not available. So, I decided to set one up with the help of other prison educators from across the country.

I feel it is important to have good education classes in prison. They should build the confidence of the students, which is often lacking. The education classes need to be part of a wider rehabilitation program. I see the Think Like A Scientist course as a pathway to further education in prison, and hopefully to employment.

What was your process like when developing the curriculum?

Science is for everyone, from any background. So, I wanted this course to be inclusive, engaging and accessible.

I spent over a year going in and out of prisons talking to inmates to try and see what would work. The more successful academic courses in prison are generally subjects that they can relate to (e.g., criminology, law, etc). In developing the course, it was clear that I had to make it so that anyone from any background could make a connection. Also, a number of students have negative connections with learning – they did not thrive at school and the idea of going back into classrooms is intimidating. It was then important to try and make the class not like high school or university, to try and get people into the room who weren’t going to sign up for an education course on their own.

From these guidelines, I decided that the course would not focus on learning testable knowledge – in that we will not test the students on what they have learned – but focus more on the way we think and what we do not know. In the class, I teach the ‘scientific method’ – which is the way we thoroughly test a research question. If we are faced with a problem like climate change, for example, we have to ask: “what don’t we understand?” and “how can we find out this information?”, or “what can we do to learn more?”.

In terms of topics, they change with what is in the news to try and make the subject relatable. In the next class we will be looking at climate change, natural hazards, space missions to Mars and artificial intelligence. However, the class always starts with the science of sleep. This is because it is an activity we all do (hopefully!) and everyone should be able to have some connection from the very beginning.

What was the biggest challenge in getting this program off the ground?

It is VERY difficult to get anything up and running in a prison. There are so many challenges that you have to overcome. The number one focus in a prison is not going to be education – therefore the administrative side of things take a long time to progress.

The teaching environment can also be quite restrictive – at universities you are able to teach with lots of exciting audio and visual equipment. In a few prisons I have been to, all that is available is a paper flip chart and some paper handouts. Communication is limited to a few images and is mainly through conversation. This means that when you are talking about black holes, hurricanes and space missions you have to be very impactful with your words. Every lesson (which lasts for 2.5 hours) feels like you are doing 3 or 4 TED-style talks – but what I’ve found in prison is that if you engage you get a lot back from the students. They are desperate to learn and are keen to ask questions – it is hard to find better students to teach.

How did the award from the British Geophysical Association (BGA) outreach fund affect your process or plans for the project?

Education and employment have been highlighted by the UK Government as key points in reducing re-offending rates. What I wanted to do with the award from the BGA was to link up with science-based employers so that they could act as mentors for the students, to coach them into employment. The idea was to give the students access to companies so that they would know what employers would want to see on their CV upon release. Hopefully, this will enable students to work towards a goal of being employed in the future, which may bring them to more education courses in prison.

The award from the BGA was a fantastic opportunity to expand the Think Like A Scientist course, and it has been great working with a number of science-based companies. What I’ve found it that a lot of people are very keen to see what they can do in terms of reducing re-offending. Often, the main question that is asked is: would your company hire a person who has been in prison? This question is a big one for society as a whole and transcends my small science class!

I’ve also received an award from the European Geosciences Union (EGU) which has allowed me to expand the course from the initial start at a women’s prison to now go into a young offender’s institution and finally a men’s prison.

What is the best part about organizing this program?

The students – they are the most dedicated and engaged I’ve had in my 10+ years of teaching. It is a joy to teach people who are desperate to be taught.

Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to launch their own passion project?

I spent a long time listening before I ever got into a classroom in prison. From January 2017 until January 2019, I talked to people, asked questions and listened to what would be the best approach. I threw out a number of different versions of the course! At the end of the day, it all came down to my ideas on the matter, but those ideas were formulated from a lot of different people. There is a great community out there that we should use – and be a part of.

I would also say – give it a go! For funding opportunities, I would find your own voice and not be afraid to pitch your new and exciting project. If it is exciting to you, it could be exciting to a funder – even if it is not the ‘norm’. I teach in the course that failure shouldn’t be feared – we don’t talk about that enough.

What are your hopes for the future of the program?

Funding is always the key thing – although the main costs of the course is simply the time to prepare, it does need some funding. There are plenty of opportunities for growth in Think Like A Scientist – I would like to repeat the course again in the prisons I have been to as the alumni students have spread the word well! There will be a lot more students to teach on the second round!

The course is designed to teach science to anyone, anywhere. So, there are many places Think Like A Scientist could go – and in many different languages. I see the course as a blueprint for getting ‘harder to reach’ students engaged in science. The possibilities are endless!

Is there anything else you would like to add or promote?

There are many wonderful organizations working in prisons, especially in the US. I’ve been helped tremendously by the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which was instrumental in setting my course up. There exists a strong community of educators who are very helpful – I am very much in their debt!

We would like to thank Philip for taking the time to chat with us about the work he is doing. We find the Think Like a Scientist program to be really inspiring and hope it continues to thrive. If you want to reach more about Philip’s work or connect with him directly, you can check out his website here: You can also read a participant's thoughts on the program here.

Some responses have been edited for length/ clarity

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