Centralia College Professor Helps Inmates Make Connection Between Math and Music

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The first part of Dr. Preston Kiekel’s week looks like that of the average professor. It’s the weekend when he marches to the beat of his own drum.

Kiekel leads a variety of math-related classes each Monday-Thursday while school is in session at Centralia College ranging from statistics to industrial mathematics. Most Fridays and Saturdays, Kiekel can be found instead at Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, teaching inmates there as part of  the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.

Though he’s taught subjects such as algebra and statistics to the Cedar Creek population, Kiekel’s most popular offering by far is Math and Society, a class he describes as math for those who aren’t as interested in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — degrees.

“It’s the same as a class I teach each year at the college,” Kiekel said. “I try to have all my prison classes be as close to what I teach on the main campus as possible. The last unit of it is music, and it’s a particularly interactive one where you can see a lot of the students are much more excited and engaged.”

The U.S. Department of Education began the Second Chance Pell program in 2015, allowing eligible prisoners to apply for federal Pell Grants for use at one of more than 60 colleges. Centralia College is one of three postsecondary institutions in Washington participating in the program — Seattle Centralia Community College and Tacoma Community College are the others.

Math and Society explores a number of areas related to life skills and the humanities some people don’t think of in a mathematical context. Regular topics include geometry within visual art forms and personal finance, though Kiekel takes suggestions from each class to help round out the curriculum.

The music portion features a look at how sound waves are measured through trigonometry, lectures on the history of math and music stretching back 1,000 years, and explores the mathematics of sheet music. Students then use math to analyze a song of their choosing and to compose a song of their own.

Kiekel said inmates who take the class often earn high grades, an outcome he attributes to their commitment to maintaining their Pell Grants and desire to capitalize on their second chance.

“These are the most dedicated students I’ve ever worked with,” Kiekel said. “They do all their work and show up all the time. The extent to which they contribute to the class is remarkable. They put in the effort, seem to benefit from it, and seem to love it. That’s what makes them such great students.”

Cedar Creek officials have to give Kiekel special permission to bring musical instruments into the facility. The prison already has guitars used during worship services, so Kiekel brought other instruments such as frame drums and a Bulgarian string instrument called a gadluka inside the gates.

“The resources we do not have access to in the prison, like the internet, really brings my attention to my reliance on those tools. There are some compromises we have to make, which makes me more flexible in how I present materials to my regular students. It’s had a positive impact on my day-to-day job as a teacher.”

With more than three years remaining until the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is set to expire, Kiekel hopes to continue refining the Cedar Creek version of his Math and Society class while introducing dozens of inmates to the everyday uses of mathematics.

“Most people are math-phobic, which is a characteristic of our culture,” Kiekel said. “When you show them something they enjoy and are familiar with, it really helps them connect to the material and to the math more broadly.”

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