WOMEN inmates have been taking part in what is thought to be the first science programme to run in an English prison.

Climate change, the solar system, plate tectonics and the science of sleep have all been tackled by inmates at Low Newton women's prison in Durham.

Durham University fellow Dr Phil Heron, who taught the course, said: "The problem is the restrictive nature of prisons makes it very difficult to to teach science and the ones that do offer it as distance learning – there's no instruction in the classroom."

He added: "Lots of the residents at Low Newton haven't had much education outside school and this was about building their confidence that they can do education.

"A lot of residents haven't had that confidence in education for a long time. It's amazing teaching people who are desperate to be there.

"The students were some of the best I've ever had because they were so interested and excited by the subject."

It took about two years to get the project underway, with women taking part in the seven-week "think like a scientist" course between January and March.

Up to 10 people took part in each sessions, which touched on topics including climate change, the science of sleep, the solar system, the Universe, and plate tectonics and helped students to develop scientific skills.

They also did an experiment recording their own sleep patterns to analyse the effect of sleep and sleeplessness, had a guest lecture from renowned science communicator Professor Danielle George and carried out research to prepare an end-of-course presentation making the case for a scientist to be the face of the £50 note.

Originally from Crawcrook, near Gateshead, Dr Heron is an expert in tectonics and is keen to roll out the course to other institutions as part of the university's education outreach programme.

Sarah Blackman, learning and skills manager at Low Newton, said: “The residents really enjoyed the opportunity, and it was excellent to see residents have the chance to explore scenarios and topics which they have not previously had the confidence or chance to explore.

“We are keen to continue our work with Durham University in the future as the feedback from the residents was truly inspiring. Phil did a great job."

The project is being backed by Prisoners' Education Trust.

Higher education policy officer Rosie Reynolds said: “The Prisoners’ Education Trust is thrilled to be working with Dr Heron to spread the word about Think Like A Scientist. Our PUPiL network supports a growing number of universities and prisons to work together.

“However, there are still very few of these projects that focus on the sciences, and generally a lack of taught science courses in prison. We hope that Dr Heron’s work will inspire other programmes and encourage more people in prison to develop an interest – and potentially a career – in this area.”