Imagine you are in the second semester of your undergraduate career when your professor walks into the classroom and hands you a clump of soil and tells you to get bacteria from the sample. Naturally, your eyes widen in surprise! That is exactly the reaction Associate Professor of Biology, Dr. Preston Garcia laughingly describes when discussing the Small World Initiative (SWI) course he began teaching at Castleton University in Spring 2017.
Garcia first heard about SWI when reading his University of Connecticut alumni magazine. Founded by the renowned microbiologist Jo Handelsman at Yale University, the SWI program aims to inspire students to pursue scientific research by taking a hands-on approach and having them discover new antibiotics from soil bacteria. Since 2012, the SWI course has been implemented in more than 250 schools across 38 states, Puerto Rico and 14 countries.
Recognizing the national concern of high attrition rates, Garcia saw the SWI course as a way to retain science majors, which is one of the program’s goals. Having been accepted to and attended an instructor training during the 2016 summer break, he found great flexibility in adapting the SWI curriculum to meet the needs of Castleton University. In the end, every one of the 12 students in his first cohort, including 11 freshmen, managed to successfully isolate and identify antibiotic-producing bacteria.
Many of the SWI students attended the VGN Career Day where they enjoyed the experience and took notes on how to create and present a research poster. All of the students presented their project at both the campus-wide Castleton Scholars Celebration and Natural Sciences Department Science Fair.
In addition, nine of those students applied for summer research internships, including positions funded by the Vermont Genetics Network. Garcia accepted three rising sophomores into his own lab and during their training he heard the phrase “Oh, like how we did this in SWI” more than once! Having already been exposed to a hands-on research experience through SWI, the students were familiar with the scientific process and other basic skills, like how to keep lab notebooks, make serial dilutions and use a pipette.
By the end of their summer internship all three students asked if they could be Garcia’s teaching assistant for his SWI course offered again in Spring 2018! Next year Garcia would like to access more of the SWI resources, such as the online soil sample database, and even begin analyzing some of the antibiotic compounds as part of the organic chemistry courses offered at Castleton University. Overall, SWI provides a great student learning experience while helping to address a global health threat.
If you would like more information about SWI, you can visit their web page at http://www.smallworldinitiative.org/ or contact Dr. Preston Garcia who serves on the SWI Outreach Committee at Preston.Garcia@castleton.edu.