Penn Summer Academy dives into social justice

High school students explore complex issues through a variety of media at Penn Summer Academy.

This summer, 90 high school students from all over the world gathered virtually to participate in Penn’s Social Justice Research Academy. It is one of seven Penn Summer Academies administered by the School of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) as part of the broader Penn Summer program.

Historical map of areas of Philadelphia
Historic map highlighting redlining in Philadelphia. (Image: Courtesy of Mapping Inequality)

Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo, a Ph.D. student in anthropology who focuses on environmental anthropology, joined the Social Justice Research Academy (SJRA) as one of six teaching fellows this summer. He is passionate about teaching, but found this experience especially rewarding.

“The class is specifically aimed at thinking about social justice, which is not a topic I usually get a chance to teach as a Ph.D. student,” he says. “And I was excited to add some of the environmental justice concerns that I had hoped to bring to the course.”

The Summer Academies give selected high school students the opportunity to engage in college-level research, interact with faculty and guest speakers, and take advantage of University resources such as the Penn Libraries. Except for the SJRA and a session on American Sign Language and Deaf Culture, the Summer Academies are STEM-based, including chemistry, neuroscience, physics, mathematics, and biomedical research. Classes run for three to four weeks, and normally are held on campus. However, for the past two years, due to the pandemic, the sessions went virtual.

Notable projects included a podcast about climate change that examined how historic redlining has resulted in greater climate-related health impacts for low-income communities—where, for example, less tree cover means hotter summer temperatures. Some students built websites, one of which explained the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice system and how they could help address inequities, and another examined the prevalence of Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers (also known as TRAP laws), and their disproportionate impact on low-income women.

Another student made a video about the culture of machismo in Mexico and its relationship to violence against women in the country. “One thing that made this project so strong for me,” says Aguilera Del Castillo, “was that she tackled the topic in a very rigorous way, academically, but also in a very intimate way. It was the same for many of the other projects, where the students actively made themselves part of the story.”

This story is by Jane Carroll. Read more at OMNIA.