What is the Small World Initiative?

The Small World Initiative (SWI) is an innovative program that encourages students to pursue careers in science while addressing a worldwide health threat – the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics. Since its inception, SWI has grown rapidly to include more than 250 participating undergraduate institutions and high schools across 38 US states, Puerto Rico, and 14 countries. In addition to expanding SWI on a global scale, we are also developing the infrastructure to allow SWI’s antibiotic discoveries to move forward into R&D programs.

Two Problems – STEM Deficit & Antimicrobial Resistance

First, there is a growing economic need for more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates. Over the next decade in the US alone, an additional one million STEM graduates need to join the workforce than current rates predict to meet economic demands. Yet, the number of students pursuing STEM degrees has been decreasing, especially among women and minorities.

Second, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic resistance is potentially the most important medical challenge facing humans in the 21st century. If no action is taken between now and 2050, the true cost of antimicrobial resistance is estimated to be $100 trillion and 300 million premature deaths. While pharmaceutical companies have shifted away from developing new antibiotics, existing antibiotics are losing efficacy due to widespread antibiotic resistance. 

Our Solution

SWI is an innovative program that successfully encourages students to pursue careers in science through hands-on experience and real-world applicable laboratory and field research in introductory courses. As part of SWI, students from around the world isolate bacteria from soil in their local environments that could lead to novel antibiotics. This is particularly relevant since over two thirds of antibiotics originate from soil bacteria or fungi. Differentiating itself from traditional courses, SWI’s biology course provides original research opportunities rather than relying on cookbook experiments with predetermined results. Through a series of student-driven experiments, students collect soil samples, isolate diverse bacteria, test their bacteria against clinically-relevant microorganisms, and characterize those showing inhibitory activity. SWI’s approach also provides a platform to crowdsource antibiotic discovery by tapping into the intellectual power of many people concurrently addressing a global challenge and advances promising candidates into the drug development pipeline. This unique class approach harnesses the power of active learning to achieve both educational and scientific goals.

Current School Outreach

To date, there are over 350 SWI Partner Instructors at more than 250 participating schools across 38 US states, Puerto Rico, and 14 countries – the United States, Australia, Belize, Canada, Colombia, India, Iraq, Ireland, Jordan, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Further, over 10,000 students have taken or are currently taking SWI’s introductory biology course. Training workshops have taken place in the United States and abroad in Jordan, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As part of our expansion, we are bringing SWI’s introductory biology course to the high school setting to increase our impact and act as a feeder into college programs and are specifically focused on reaching underrepresented STEM talent pools. 

Our Impact

  • 2012-2013 – Yale University "Microbes to Molecules" Pilot
  • 2013-2014 – 30 Colleges in the US
  • 2014-2015 – 60 Colleges in 5 Countries
  • 2015-2016 – 108 Schools in 10 Countries, including official US High School Pilot Program
  • 2016-2017 – 174 Schools in 12 Countries; 501(c)(3) nonprofit launched
  • 2017-2018 – 252 Schools in 14 Countries

Our Vision

  • Growing the college program nationally and internationally
  • Bringing in our first cohort of high schools following completion of the pilot
  • Developing a pipeline of opportunities for students and Partner Instructors
  • Evaluating our educational and science impact
  • Enhancing program components for crowdsourcing antibiotics
  • Creating a throughput and educational laboratory
  • Completing the development of a cloud-based relational database on small molecules to better capture data on samples and to streamline access to information on known molecules

We look forward to the next generation Partner Instructors and collaborators who will pledge to further our mission to transform STEM education and promote antibiotic discovery through the curiosity and creativity of young scientists across the world. We invite you to join us in making meaningful and measurable improvements in the education landscape and expanding opportunities for students while addressing real-world medical challenges. For more information about the Small World Initiative, please follow us on Twitter @Team_SWI or Contact Us.

What Benefits Does SWI Provide?

Acceptance into the Small World Initiative provides numerous benefits to Partner Instructors, participating institutions, and SWI students, including:

  • Instructional Materials
  • Instructor Training
  • Advice and Assistance
  • Student Opportunities
  • Partner Instructor Opportunities
  • Online Tools
  • Evaluation Instruments and Support
  • Throughput
  • Marketing/PR
  • Structure

Why Are Introductory Research Courses Necessary?

Fewer than 40% of college students intending to major in STEM fields complete a STEM degree…[many citing] uninspiring introductory courses as a factor in their choice to switch majors.”

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

One of the fastest growing sectors of the US workforce is for STEM graduates. In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) reported that, in order to meet our economic demands over the next decade, the US will need to produce an additional one million STEM graduates than the current graduation rate predicts (Engage to Excel). Yet, the number of students pursuing STEM degrees has been decreasing with many citing uninspiring introductory courses as a factor in switching career paths.

To confront this challenge, experts from PCAST, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) recommend replacing conventional laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses for introductory science students (Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education). These recommendations are based on evidence that these courses enhance students’ motivation and learning and increase the retention of students in science majors. Further, the effect is particularly strong among women and minorities, who represent a large talent pool that is underrepresented in scientific majors and careers. For example, according to the US Department of Commerce, women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000.

Differentiating itself from traditional courses, SWI’s innovative biology course provides original research opportunities rather than relying on experiments with predetermined results. SWI students have been enthralled with the chance to contribute to averting the mounting antibiotic crisis while acquiring useful laboratory skills. Experts agree that such authentic research experiences are most useful in introductory courses and can positively influence a student’s decision to pursue a career in science. 

Our team is focused on promoting evidence-based solutions. To assess SWI’s impact on students, the LEAD Center at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research analyzed results from 22 institutions for the 2013-2014 academic year regarding students’ interest in learning biology before and after the course. The results showed that the vast majority of students enjoyed contributing to a larger scientific effort. Further, the majority of students indicated that SWI’s course had a positive effect on their interest in science.

Student Voices:

“The best part of this course was the fact that I was able to perform the work on my own and that it was largely a hands-on experience. Learning aseptic techniques, growing bacteria, and many of the other things that were done greatly influenced my desire to continue studying the area of biology and chemistry.”
“I was involved in a research project to find antibiotics that will help cure diseases and be used in medicine. It was very important to me because it was my own project. I felt like I was making a difference in the world.”
“That thrill when I looked down at my plates and saw something original and new – there's nothing like it in the world.”
“We were the center of our own learning…that made coming to lab fun. I don’t think I dreaded coming to the lab once, because you never knew what your results were going to be unlike most other labs where you follow specific protocols.”

What is the Antibiotic Crisis?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), antibiotic resistance is potentially the most important medical challenge facing humans in the 21st century. If no action was taken between now and 2050, the true cost of antimicrobial resistance would be $100 trillion and 300 million premature deaths.

A worldwide health threat is pending. Many existing antibiotics are losing efficacy due to widespread antibiotic resistance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug-resistant bacteria cause two million illnesses and approximately 23,000 deaths each year in the United States alone. Exacerbating the problem, the antibiotic pipeline is facing a crisis. Pharmaceutical companies have shifted away from opportunities to develop drugs for acute infectious diseases in favor of more lucrative drugs for chronic diseases.

SWI’s novel research course provides a unique and sustainable path to replenish the antibiotic pipeline by identifying suitable candidates for testing. Thanks to SWI’s ability to capture the combined efforts of many students, a library of soil bacteria and extracts is rapidly expanding. To date, SWI’s students have produced and identified thousands of bacterial and fungal isolates. This is particularly relevant since over two thirds of antibiotics originate from soil bacteria or fungi. SWI’s approach overcomes the most prohibitory aspects of research towards antibiotic discovery and offers a real path to make meaningful impact in confronting this crisis.