I learned about the Small World Initiative (SWI) in 2013, through an email sent via the ASM-educator list. The email called for applicants to participate in a training workshop at Yale University and required an application form signed off by a department chair. The deadline was a couple of days away. My colleague, Huda Makhluf, and I had been interested in research-based courses for a while, and thanks to that interest and some frantic emails back and forth, we completed and submitted the application form in time. A few weeks later, we learned that we were selected as one of the pilot partners to come to New Haven. In July 2013, I spent a crazy and inspiring week at Yale with 23 other instructors learning not only the lab protocols and techniques used but also the pedagogic foundations of scientific teaching. We picked and patched colonies from smelly plates, got excited about inhibition zones, could not wait to see the PCR results, and returned to our home institutions with the mission to implement SWI.
Most (if not all) institutions that implemented SWI in that first round were very different from Yale. Small colleges, non-traditional colleges, community colleges…both their material resources and student populations do not compare to those of Yale. Over the coming weeks and months, we worked and often struggled to adapt the SWI framework to many different courses and school styles, passing the hurdles of IRB applications and setting up the logistics of lab activities we were not familiar with.
My first SWI class was small, only 7 students. They were mainly pre-nursing students, a few were heading to radiation therapy or PA school. They were, as most of our students are, adult working students. Their main goal, which they did not hide, was to get good grades so they could get in the programs of their choice. Some of them were good at the lecture part, asking questions and showing they knew the material. Others were quiet and shy. In the lab, however, things started soon to change. With SWI, there are no right or wrong results, and so some students became really interested in what they were doing. They called each other in the lab to show off their stainings and wondered about the meaning of their results. They started asking questions, and very often, I did not have the answers, just as it happens in real science. I could tell that a couple of students were nervous about this lack of clarity; others, however, started to stand out in their efforts. One of the aspects that I love about SWI is how it empowers students.
In that first SWI class, one of my students, a quiet and shy young woman working as a LVN started to produce amazing results. Not only was her lab work impeccable, she was also studying Bergey’s manual and planning her next tests! A few months later, she would be the student representing National University at the ASM conference Presidential Forum. As I watched her glowing by her poster, explaining her work, and interacting easily with scientists and fellow students, I felt almost like a proud parent.
The magic repeated again and again with each SWI course. In 2015, the student who volunteered to present her work at the AAAS meeting student poster competition was an older student who never in her life imagined attending a science conference.
While one of the original reasons of SWI was to increase the number of STEM graduates, I see its impact on education even broader. To make students (any students!) aware of the challenges and excitement of science and give them the possibility to live it from the beginning to its culmination in a public presentation is a huge value. Our society needs citizens who know and appreciate science, and the world needs more awareness of the antibiotic crisis.
It is a win-win for everybody!