Arts & Sciences in Action

Supporting the Making a Difference in Global Communities Program


Immersive, interdisciplinary, and experiential learning

Responsible scholarship, teaching, and collaboration across the disciplines can turn knowledge into action with demonstrable impact. At Penn Arts & Sciences, the Making a Difference in Global Communities initiative encourages faculty to work with students, explore innovative ways of applying their expertise, and address global societal challenges, including inequities in race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic mobility, education, health care, and political representation, as well as climate change, poverty, and immigration.

The program offers grants of up to $100,000 to interdisciplinary teams of faculty who engage students in projects in communities at the local, national, and international level. Grants support a range of activities including course development, pre-departure training, domestic and international travel, lodging, stipends, and dissemination of findings. Funds may be used, for example, to develop a service-learning course that takes place at Penn during the spring semester, followed by a fieldwork experience during the summer where students partner with community residents to develop solutions to pressing issues.

Making a Difference creates opportunities for students across the University to engage in immersive, interdisciplinary, and experiential learning. Projects address a range of questions and methodologies but share a focus on impact and a commitment to local and global engagement. Funding for Making a Difference supports student inquiry and community-oriented solutions and strengthens the School’s commitment to advance research and teaching around issues of diversity, inequality, and human well-being.

Philosophy for the Young

Young minds have the capacity for philosophical thought. The problem is, there isn’t much room for philosophical exploration in traditional curricula. This project encouraged children to think philosophically by building on existing partnerships and cultivating new relationships with schools across Philadelphia and students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Penn undergraduates worked alongside graduate students in dedicated philosophy classes and clubs and in classrooms where teachers worked to integrate the subject into existing lessons.

Karen Detlefsen, Vice Provost for Education, Professor of Philosophy and Education, and project leader, views the work as a social and educational justice project, giving students the chance to think freely and explore topics including personal values, character, and social systems.

Karen Detlefsen, Professor of Philosophy and Education, in a Philadelphia school.

Penn in Kenya

More than 150,000 North African refugees and asylum-seekers live in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp and the adjacent Kalobeyei Settlement. The majority of them have arrived since 2013, fleeing the ongoing civil war in South Sudan.

For several years, a project led by Peter Decherney, Professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies, has allowed Penn students to partner with residents at the Kakuma Camp to film accurate narratives of the refugee experiences and create education and training programs for other residents. The current project pairs Penn students with students at the FilmAid Kenya training program to design an open online course, a MOOC, that will allow refugees and other at-risk communities around the world access FilmAid’s successful curriculum.

Penn students and residents of a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya collaborate on video and virtual reality projects.

Reducing Lead Exposure: Testing a Nationally Replicable University-Municipal-Community Partnership

Concerns over lead poisoning were heightened in the U.S. after the contamination of a city water supply in Flint, Michigan. In Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania, rates of lead exposure in children are high—especially in low-income communities. This project, which began in spring 2017, involved students and faculty working with key stakeholders in municipal government, local schools, and community groups to develop and implement a program to eliminate lead exposure through lead service line replacement.

Under the direction of Reto Gieré, Professor of Earth and Environmental Science, undergrads collaborated with Penn faculty, public school students and teachers, and members of the community. Students used GIS skills to prepare maps that identified properties with lead lines, promoted lead screenings for children in affected neighborhoods, and developed curricula to raise awareness about lead service lines, health risks, and community action.

Tabeen Hosain, C’17, (R) worked with community members in West Philadelphia to test soil using an XRF analyzer.

Sighting Black Girlhood

The COVID-19 pandemic and protests against police violence drew attention to deep inequities embedded in our social and political systems, yet the gendered dimensions of these programs are not always fully understood. The Sighting Black Girlhood project, led by by Deborah Thomas, R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography, brings issues that Black girls face into public attention.

It builds on an existing exhibit and portrait campaign called “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” designed to see Black girlhood as a sacred space. It will involve a team-taught course, collaborations with partners in Philadelphia, Jamaica, and South Africa, and a traveling exhibit that will generate research on interventions in the lives of Black girls in those area.

Deborah Thomas, R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography


Giving Opportunties

Opportunities to support Making a Difference in Global Communities exist at many levels. Support may fund course development, training, and travel, among other possibilities.


To learn more about supporting this initiative, please contact Deb Rhebergen, Vice Dean for Advancement, at