Small World Initiative

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Welcome to the Web Portal of the Small World Initiative: Crowdsourcing the Discovery of Antibiotics.



** Small World Initiative 2014 Application is now available: Word or PDF formats. Due date = April 25th, 2014 **

The Small World Initiative will be highlighted at the President's Forum at the asm2014 General Meeting in Boston, MA on Monday, May 19th, from 12-1:45pm. Join us to learn more about what the amazing things our Pilot Partners and their students are doing and learning!

The Need for Undergraduate Research Courses

Numerous expert panels have recommended expanding research experiences for students at the introductory levels of science.  For example, the report from the PCAST report, “Engage to Excel,” and the AAAS/NSF report, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, recommended replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.  Recommendations are based on education research demonstrating that students benefit from early research experiences in numerous ways, including persistence in science majors.

Currently, most undergraduates are first exposed to a laboratory when taking an introductory lecture course and perform techniques and experiments with predetermined results.  Research must wait until the last two years of college, which is too late to affect students’ decisions about whether to leave science majors.  In contrast, the reports suggest that the benefits of an early research experience can be best attained through the research courses which are more appropriate and feasible for most introductory students than research in faculty labs.  Thus, we developed an introductory biology course, From Microbes to Molecules (M2M), in which student learning is driven by their engagement in original research.

The Antibiotic Crisis

The antibiotic pipeline has slowed to a trickle because the interests of most pharmaceutical companies have shifted toward lucrative drugs for chronic diseases and away from acute infectious disease.  Moreover, many of the antibiotics currently in use are losing efficacy due to the development of widespread antibiotic resistance in pathogens.  This health crisis creates a vehicle for drawing students into the practice of research as well as the societal implications of its outcomes.  Studies have shown that the relevance of research to human welfare enhances students' motivation and learning, and the effect is particularly strong among women and certain ethnic minority groups, who represent a large talent pool that is underrepresented in scientific majors, in part due to current teaching practices. 

Thus, with the driving force of providing an authentic research experience early and a relevant research project that addresses a worldwide health threat, we have created an undergraduate research course designed specifically for freshman and sophomore students. This novel research course, Small World Initiative, teaches students the principles of introductory biology by engaging them actively in a research project that examines antibiotic-producing microbes obtained from soil.  About 75% of antibiotics in current use originate from soil bacteria.  Thus, the focus on the discovery of new antibiotics produced by soil microbes connects the antibiotic crisis and infectious disease to broad biological principles.  It also provides an opportunity for student ownership of research strategies and results, another well-known factor that fosters student learning and retention. 

Other research-based undergraduate courses:


• Students identify and characterize previously unknown bacteriophages
• Developed by Graham Hatfull at the University of Pittsburgh and Sarah C.R. Elgin at Washington University
• Now expanded 36 universities and colleges around the country
• Sponsored by HHMI
• Hatfull G.F., et al. (2006). Exploring the mycobacteriophage metaproteome: phage genomics as an educational platform. PLoS Genet 6:e92.

Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL) Course

• Identify and characterize antibiotics produced from fungi found in Ecuador
• Advanced laboratory course for juniors
• Developed by Scott Strobel at Yale University
• Sponsored by HHMI

• Strobel, S.A. & G.A. Strobel. (2007). Plant endophytes as a platform for discovery-based undergraduate science education. Nature Chemical Biology 3, 356 – 359. 

UCLA Undergraduate Research Consortium in Functional Genomics

• Manipulate the genotypes to determine what effect homozygous mutation of their target genes has in the adult Drosophila eye
• Lower division lecture with computer- and lab-based components for freshmen and sophomore students
• Developed by Utpal Banjeree at University of California - Los Angeles
• Sponsored by HHMI
• Chen J, Call GB, Beyer E, Bui C, Cespedes A, et al. (2005). Discovery-Based Science Education: Functional Genomic Dissection in Drosophila by Undergraduate Researchers. PLoS Biol 3(2): e59.