Sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Social Impact House is a two-week immersion fellowship for students and recent alumni seeking to test innovative ideas for changing the world outside their classrooms. The students‘ ventures span a wide range of interests; one fellow, for example, is developing an online learning platform (similar to a MOOC) for struggling high school students; another is designing a mobile app to teach financial literacy; and a third is creating a comprehensive program to engage at-risk youth and teach computer programming.
While course credit is available, the Social Impact House consists largely of extracurricular work in experiential learning, design thinking, and practical applications of the fellows’ own ideas. Dozens of mentors, including faculty members in a number of disciplines, nonprofit innovators, and researchers, volunteer their time to visit the institute.
In some ways, the structure of the Social Impact House adheres to basic tenets of the University setting. Many mentors are accomplished faculty members from a number of universities, and a comprehensive curriculum designed in advance culminates in fellows’ final presentations of their work. Yet the overall experience is dramatically different than even the most interdisciplinary classroom. The diverse group of fellows includes undergraduates and graduate students earning degrees in subjects ranging from architecture to computer science, as well as a few recent alumni from across the university. Daily sessions are structured around a series of collaborative experiential learning exercises. A visit to a local farmers market, for example, spurred fellows to contextualize their own projects within their communities and populations served.
During downtime, fellows led skill shares and taught each other elements of their specialties, which ranged from computer programming to design. Their multidisciplinarity means that conversations ranging from history, politics, and international relations to marketing and financial strategy were not uncommon. By the end of this year’s institute, fellows had progressed enormously both in developing their ventures and nurturing their sense of global context.
We cannot, of course, typically sequester our university students in a house together for the entirety of a course. So what might we learn from an experience like the Social Impact House? Here are a few of my takeaways:
- Mix things up. Putting a diverse group of students together—both in terms of experience and academic interests—allows them to work toward a common goal (in this case, growing their ventures) from completely different perspectives. In my experience, opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, and innovation thrive in this sort of environment.
- Bring experiential learning to the forefront. For the Penn fellows, a hands-on problem-solving experience was much more engaging than a case study. For historians, experiential components might consist of role plays, tie-ins with current events, and field trips.
- Cultivate community. Living together might not be possible (or desirable!) for the duration of a university course, but there are countless other ways to nourish community in a group learning environment. Feelings of shared experience and vulnerability are more likely to emerge from hands-on experience than passive learning. Service-based or place-grounded components strengthen the ties of class community as well.
The community-based incubator could serve a number of other purposes within a university. What if this model were implemented for honors students or majors during the summer or a holiday break? What if students from across the university could come together in this manner to devise solutions to local and international problems?
I’m grateful to have had the experience of being a staff member at the Social Impact House, and I’m looking forward to integrating some of these strategies into my classroom this semester.