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Past Themes

The Symposium began as the Great Works Symposium in 2000 under the directorship of Professor Charles Morscheck. Under Dr. Morscheck's leadership, the Great Works Symposium offered courses on singular great works, with topics ranging from the "The Atomic Bomb" to "Globalization" to "The Bhagavid-Gita."

In 2007 Scott Gabriel Knowles took over as director; during this time, the Great Works Symposium became organized under a yearly interdisciplinary theme. In 2007-2008 the program brought in the first of its Visiting Fellows, and the Great Works began to offer four courses per year gathered around the central annual theme, bringing Drexel faculty into collaboration in course design and delivery. Annual themes have included "Health and Society," Democracy," and "Energy."

In 2014 Kevin D. Egan took over as director and in 2016 "Great Works" was dropped from the title and the program became officially known as the Symposium.

One mainstay of the Symposium is that it has consistently fostered interdisciplinary learning through both curricular and co-curricular opportunities. In addition to bringing numerous experts and practitioners into the classroom, it has also sponsored a number of co-curricular opportunities over the years. It has developed special class trips and one-credit travel-integrated courses. Past trips include Bulgaria (in conjunction with the course “Emerging Democracies”), Shanghai (in conjunction with the course “Global Cities”), Florence (in conjunction with the course “Celebrity Science”), and Cape Town (in conjunction with the course “Life and Death in the Museum”), as well as a unique trip to Washington, D.C. to witness Barack Obama's first inauguration.

2022-23: Animals in the City

Nonhuman animals commonly found in cities include wild animals, companion animals, zoo animals, laboratory and research animals, service animals, pest animals, and farmed animals, among others. Awareness of cities as more-than-human spaces has been growing since the turn of the century, fueling scientific and public debate on the role of nonhuman animals in urban spaces. The Symposium asks how we can better appreciate and accommodate animals in the city, while also exploring the ecological, health, ethical, and cultural implications of doing so.

  • Animals in the City: Politics, Justice, Democracy
  • Multispecies Art
  • The Metropolitan’s Smallest Animals: Urban Microbiomes in Public Health, Sustainability, and City Infrastructure
  • Constructing Nature: A Philadelphia Diorama for the 21st Century
  • Bugs in the City
  • King Kong
  • Cultural History of Zoos
  • Eating Animals (or not)

2021-22: Aging

Aging is a universal condition, and the way it manifests biologically, socially, culturally, ethically, and technically merits consideration from an interdisciplinary perspective. Any singular disciplinary field cannot capture the breadth of aging as lived experience or object of study. Across populations and to the level of the individual, aging presents opportunities and challenges that require expertise and collaboration from fields as diverse as health, medicine, design, public policy, engineering, and economics, among many others. A holistic understanding of aging will become increasingly crucial as humanity exists in an era in which life-extending medical and technical advancements are intertwined in a constellation of issues related to pressures on healthcare systems, diminishing resources, anthropogenic climate change, and shifts in socio-cultural systems.

  • Rethinking Healthy Aging through Public Policy and Healthcare Innovation
  • Writers Room Lab
  • Aging, Aging Policy and Health in Asia
  • Designing Your Death Plan: Living and Aging According to Your Desires
  • Evolution vs. Design: Challenges in Human Aging
  • Design for Aging Awareness

2020-21: Disaster

In many ways, disaster has come to mark our contemporary moment – the slow disaster of global climate change, and the interrelated disasters it has spawned such as the spread of disease, wildfires, and flooding; systemic disasters of poverty and violence; and of course both natural and manmade disasters, from volcanic eruptions to nuclear meltdowns. Yet, we are also increasingly equipped to meet the challenges of these disasters, and it is becoming ever more important to understand the nature of disaster holistically so that we can better prepare for and respond to these disasters when they occur.

  • Design, Disaster, and Impact
  • Privacy & Security in Pandemic
  • Disasters, Equity, Social Justice
  • Interior Space, Environment, & Disaster
  • Uncertainty, Risk, and Disaster

2019-20: Waste

Nobody wants to take ownership of waste, yet almost every discipline can lay claim to helping us better understand how to tackle the issue of waste. Waste is the byproduct of economic growth and development; it is the central problem of sustainability initiatives; it is an eyesore in the natural environment, and often unseen in our daily lives. To manage, reduce, reuse, and recycle waste requires an interdisciplinary approach to truly understand the scope of its impact — doing so brings together the intersecting fields of science, technology, business, politics, and policy that can create the means of addressing it.

  • Waste and the City
  • Slow Disaster Field Station
  • Waste and Design

2018-19: Fashion

Fashion lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach to understanding its significance and impact because it connects to so many aspects of our daily lives — the functionality and style of clothing; the ways in which comfort and performance are integrated into daily and athletic wear; how style constructs and reflects identity; strategies of marketing and branding; systems of consumption through buying, selling, reusing, and repurposing garments; labor practices from mass production to DIY; and, the inevitable waste of a global industry, just to name a few.

  • Fashion as Material Culture
  • Fashioning the City
  • Textile and Society
  • Fashion and Memory

2017-18: Community

Examining community through an interdisciplinary perspective provides the opportunity to understand it from the local and immediate to the global and far-reaching. To account for the various meanings and instantiations of community across regions, cultures, and historical periods requires attention to the many ways that community can be studied by various methods, theories, and modes of inquiry that are at the heart of the Symposium.

  • Community Advocacy & Mobilization
  • Unpacking the "Flourishing Community"
  • The Promise and Challenges of University-Community Relations

2016-17: Water

From local and immediate problems, like the Flint water crisis and Philadelphia’s own struggles with infrastructure and drainage, to the global and far-reaching effects of climate change, water is a critical topic that spans geopolitical, ecological, sociological, and cultural dimensions. So too does it span fields of knowledge — from environmental science to design and engineering to history and public policy, water is an unbounded subject of study, exploration, and examination.

  • Rivers of Exploration
  • Making Space for Water: Water in Urban Environments
  • Gender, Water, and Development
  • Tribal Water Rights in the Great Lakes Region

2015-16: Comedy

Comedy cuts across historical, cultural, and scientific contexts. Drawing on the expertise of scholars from a wide range of disciplines and performers (both active and retired), students will explore how comedy is situated at the boundary areas among disciplines as well as cultural, social, national, and even generational groups. And, since performance is central to comedy, it will also take center stage (pun intended) throughout the year’s courses. 

2014-15: The Supernatural

By understanding where the unreal, super-, ultra-, para-, are situated in culture — from the ancient worlds to today — we gain a rare view into the real nature of reality. Understanding the supernatural requires drawing upon literature (including films, ghost tours, and exhibits) and experts from disciplines as diverse as psychology, history, history of science, literary criticism, metaphysical and religious studies, popular culture, anthropology and others.

  • Paranormal Science
  • Morality and Mythology
  • Haunted Histories and Ghost Stories
  • Magic, Science, and Performance

2013-14: Media: Past, Present, Future

  • Imaging War
  • The Future of Television?
  • Media Literacy: How Do We Know What We Know?
  • Media: How We Are All Creators

2012-13: Frontiers of Science

  • The Search for Extraterrestrial Life
  • Celebrity Science: The Lives of Geniuses and Heretics
  • Life and Death in the Museum
  • The Science Wars

2011-12: Health and Society

  • Clashing Views in Health and Society
  • The Social Determinants of Health
  • The City and the Senses
  • Perspectives on Disability

2010-11: The City

  • Vital Systems of Cities
  • Global Cities
  • The Political Development of US Cities

2009-10: Energy

2007-08: Health and Society

  • Modern Medicine: Examining the State of the Art
  • Epidemic! Disease Shaping History and Society
  • The Mechanical Body


  • The European Union
  • Global Warming
  • Design


  • Evolution
  • The Atomic Bomb
  • The Mississippi River
  • Physical Philadelphia


  • Musical Theater
  • The Skyscraper
  • A Sustainable Earth


  • The Portrait
  • The Automobile
  • Globalization


  • The Atomic Bomb
  • Frankenstein
  • The Statue of Liberty


  • Oil
  • The Underground Railroad
  • Christmas


  • Yosemite National Park
  • The Brooklyn Bridge
  • The Bhagavid-Gita