The Small World Initiative® (SWI) strives to combine technology, science, and innovation to make meaningful and measurable improvements in the global education and healthcare landscape.

The mission of the program is twofold.

First, it seeks to encourage students to pursue careers in science and increase scientific literacy through real-world applicable laboratory and field research in introductory courses.

Second, it aims to address a worldwide health threat – the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics – by tapping into the collective power of many student researchers concurrently tackling the same challenge, living up to its motto “crowdsourcing antibiotic discovery.”

Replace standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses
— PCAST, Engage to Excel Report (2012)



SWI was inspired in response to the "Engage to Excel" Report to President Barack Obama, which called for the "[replacement] of standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses" (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)). In 2012, less than 40% of students intending to major in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields completed the degree. Many students cited uninspiring introductory courses as the reason for dropping STEM majors. SWI is designed to change that by engaging students in an authentic research experience, which addresses a real-world crisis – the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics – and alters their perspective of an otherwise ordinary ecosystem (soil). SWI offers students a framework to think like scientists, express their curiosity, and hone their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Small World Initiative Pedagogic Goals

  • Retain students in STEM
  • Train students to apply the scientific method and think like scientists
  • Inspire the next generation of scientists
  • Improve scientific literacy among non-STEM majors and society at large

Modern medicine, including chemotherapy and surgery, would not be possible without the use of antibiotics. Yet, as antibiotic-resistant infections (also known more commonly as "superbugs") are on the rise, the supply of effective antibiotics is dwindling. Pharmaceutical companies have shifted away from developing new antibiotics in favor of more profitable ventures even as the United Nations calls antimicrobial resistance "the most pressing and urgent global risk" of our time. Each year in the US alone, more than 2 million people become ill with antibiotic-resistant infections, and 23,000 die (CDC). Globally, it is estimated that more than 700,000 people die annually (WHO) from these infections. If no significant action is taken by 2050, superbugs will kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined and result in 300 million premature deaths. SWI offers a unique platform to leverage the power of thousands of student researchers around the world to "crowdsource" candidates for new drugs and to study the untapped microbiological and chemical diversity of soil.

Small World Initiative Scientific Goals

  • Address the global concern for antibiotic resistance
  • Discover candidates for novel natural product antibiotics
  • Explore the untapped microbial and biochemical diversity of soil