The Small World Initiative: An Innovative Crowdsourcing Platform for Antibiotics

December 07, 2016 by Ana Maria Barral, Huda Makhluf, Nichole A. Broderick, Erika L. Kurt

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The Small World Initiative™ (SWI) is an innovative program that encourages students to pursue careers in science and sets forth a unique platform to crowdsource new antibiotics. It centers around an introductory biology course through which students perform original hands-on field and laboratory research in the hunt for new antibiotics. 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. This is particularly relevant since over two thirds of antibiotics originate from soil bacteria or fungi. 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. Formulated in 2012 at Yale University by Jo Handelsman, the current Associate Director of Science at the White House, the course is now in 109 institutions in 32 states, Puerto Rico, and nine countries. We will present course data on enrollment and curriculum integration as well as highlight implementation at National University. We will discuss our preliminary student evaluation results, which show the compelling impact of the program in comparison to traditional introductory courses. Ultimately, the mission of the program is to provide an evidence-based approach to teaching introductory biology concepts in the context of a real-world problem. This approach has been shown to be particularly impactful on underrepresented STEM talent pools, including women and minorities.