Sunday, October 22, 2017

Cake cutting algorithms in prison

This past Friday, I gave a lecture on cake cutting algorithms at the Timpanogos Women's Facility as part of a lecture series organized by my Utah colleague Erin L. Castro and her Utah Prison Education Project. The project's mission is to
... provide quality, sustained, and meaningful higher educational opportunities to individuals incarcerated in Utah state prisons. Through embodying the mission of the University of Utah, the Project assists incarcerated students and non-incarcerated volunteers to live lives of impact, both in prison and post-incarceration, by fostering leadership, civic engagement, and critical inquiry. UPEP aims to create lasting impact in our state and our communities by investing in people and providing them the tools necessary for empowerment and lifelong learning.
I think this is incredibly important work.  We don't need to get into a much larger discussion about rehabilitation versus punishment theories of justice to appreciate how providing access to education might allow incarcerated students the ability to turn their life around, or even find opportunities for work once they leave prison so that they have a way to support themselves without falling back into criminal activities. Maybe the amount of education they get in prison might even one day be a predictive factor in deciding whether they will reoffend!

When I first mentioned this on Facebook, many people were curious about what it was like. I can report here that my lecture was.... more or less exactly like a lecture would happen in any of the other places I lecture. Students came in with a lot of fear of math (which is why I thought I'd talk about recreational math). There was an actual cake and lots of nervousness when I had students run the algorithms on the cake. There were lots of questions about the different models of fair division, and some confusion about whether we could trust the results of the process.

In other words, every kind of question one might expect in any setting. The students were engaged and interested. They hadn't had too much math experience except what they did in high school, but they were able to follow along quite well and come up with their own algorithms as we advanced further into the lecture. I enjoyed myself, and I hope they did too!

But of course this was at a prison, so there were some other details.

  • Arranging the cake (and a whiteboard) took some work, and Erin and her group (as well as the lieutenant at the prison) did their magic to make it happen. There was some discussion about who would use the plastic butter knife: eventually the students did. 
  • I couldn't bring my laptop in, and used a whiteboard (which worked fine for my talk). But I hadn't planned on using one, and maybe if I did want to do a slide presentation that would have been arranged as well. 
  • There was some discussion about where the students would sit, and how much spacing was needed. There was even some minor discussion about whether we could all get together for a group photo at the end (we did!). 

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