Penn Arts and Sciences Pilots New Efforts to Make a Difference

A new Penn Arts and Sciences program encourages faculty to explore innovative ways of applying their expertise and working with students to address societal challenges. The initiative, called “Making a Difference in Diverse Communities,” provides funding to support teams of faculty and students in multidisciplinary projects that combine coursework, research, and service to address issues of diversity and inequality at the local, national, and international level.

The five inaugural funded projects will take place on four continents and draw on fields as wide-ranging as anthropology, public policy, environmental studies, community health, film and media studies, and history. They will engage faculty from across the School’s humanities, social science, and natural science departments, as well as collaborators from other Penn schools.

In announcing the grant awards, Steven Fluharty, Dean of Penn Arts and Sciences, said that these projects demonstrate that “the solutions for so many of society’s problems require a multidisciplinary approach that starts with tools and knowledge from the liberal arts.” He added that he was “inspired by the creativity of these proposals and their great potential to open up new horizons for our students while addressing critical issues, both close to home and around the world.”

The grant recipients are:

  • Reclaiming Refugee Stories: Virtual Reality and Participatory Video in an African Refugee Camp: This project, led by Professor of English and Cinema Studies Peter Decherney, seeks to create accurate narratives of the refugee experience to combat misleading media stereotypes. It will take Penn undergraduates to a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya where they will collaborate in teams with refugees to create video and virtual reality projects. The other faculty directors are Carolyn Cannuscio, assistant professor of family medicine and community health, and John Jackson, Jr., Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice and Richard Perry University Professor, who also has appointments in anthropology and the Annenberg School for Communication.
  • From the Western Highlands of Guatemala to West Philadelphia: Applied Skills in Global Community Health: This project will provide an advanced research experience for students to investigate the impact of poverty and migration on health, with a focus on diabetes and obesity, in West Philadelphia and Guatemala. Students will also develop community health assessments as well as prevention and screening interventions. Project directors are Adriana Petryna, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Anthropology; Fran Barg, associate professor of family medicine and community health and associate professor of anthropology; and Kent Bream, assistant professor of clinical family medicine and community health.
  • Reducing Lead Exposure: Testing a Nationally Replicable University-Municipal-Community Partnership: In this project, students and faculty from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science will work with key stakeholders across southeastern Pennsylvania in municipal government, local schools, and community groups to develop and implement a program that will enhance current efforts to eliminate lead exposure through lead service line replacement and community-based education. Project faculty leaders include Reto Gieré, professor and Chair of Earth and Environmental Science; Trevor Penning, Molinoff Professor of Pharmacology and Biochemistry and Biophysics; Ira Harkavy, Director, Netter Center for Community Partnerships; Richard Pepino, lecturer in earth and environmental science; Marilyn Howarth, adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine and pharmacology; and Howard Neukrug, practice professor of earth and environmental science.
  • Community-Based Ecology in the Galapagos Archipelago: This project aims to work with local leaders and community members of the Galapagos Archipelago to address pressing issues where ecology, climate change, poverty, and educational inequality intersect. Penn students will be paired with local Galapagos high school students to promote ecological literacy and empower local residents to better fulfill their roles as educators and stewards of the islands. Michael Weisberg, professor and Chair of Philosophy, is project director, with co-directors Erol Akcay and Tim Linksvayer, both assistant professors of biology; Deena Skolnick Weisberg, senior fellow in psychology; and Karen M’Closkey, associate professor of landscape architecture.
  • Rising Waters: This effort will explore the future of rivers and coastal cities through faculty- and student-led comparative ethnographic and historical research in Philadelphia and Mumbai—two cities where racial and class geography has been impacted by water and that could be further shaped by climate change. Project co-directors are Nikhil Anand, assistant professor of anthropology, and Bethany Wiggin, associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures and Director of the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities.

The Making a Difference in Diverse Communities initiative is a key component of the School’s commitment to advance research and teaching around issues of diversity, inequality, and human well-being, a priority that was highlighted in its 2015 strategic plan, Our Foundations and Frontiers.

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