A small world inspires studying STEM, health
Small World Initiative President Erika Kurt hopes to introduce her program that works to inspire students’ interest in science — and also addresses a global health crisis — to the Aspen community.
The Small World Initiative is an educational nonprofit that aims to tackle two critical problems faced by the science and medical fields.
The first is the decline in the number of students pursuing degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) both in the U.S. and worldwide.
According to a 2012 executive report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, economic projections indicate a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at its current rate over the next decade in order for it to retain its “historical pre-eminence” in science and technology.
To overcome this deficit, the number of students in the U.S. who earn undergraduate degrees in STEM fields must increase by about 34 percent annually over current rates, the report said.
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The report looks at the low retention of students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, stating that fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.
One factor fueling this low retention and reduced number of STEM professionals in the U.S., according to the report, is “uninspiring introductory courses,” taught at colleges and universities.
Improving the way that students learn science was the thought behind the Small World Initiative, which was founded by Yale University professor Jo Handelsman in 2012.
“She was really interested in changing science education,” Kurt said. “Science education is taught more as the history of science. There’s a lot of memorization and you have to regurgitate facts on an exam.”
The point of the Small World Initiative, Kurt said, is to “inspire students in the sciences by having them address a real-world problem.”
“And the real-world problem just happens to be the antibiotic crisis,” she said.
The antibiotic crisis, which refers to the antimicrobial resistance to drugs that treat infections, is the second critical issue that the Small World Initiative works to tackle.
Antimicrobial resistance is “an increasingly serious threat to global public health” that requires action across all government sectors and society, according to the World Health Organization.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the U.S., at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics each year.
Of the 2 million, at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, according to the CDC.
“The crisis is enormous,” said Allan Goldberg, who recently founded a pharmaceutical company that works to develop new antibiotics that have lesser resistance to drugs as existing antibiotics.
“If you think back to what the world looked like in the pre-antibiotic era, infectious disease was the largest reason for morbidity and mortality in the world,” Goldberg said. “If we did not have useful antibiotics, we would quickly retreat back to that.”
The Small World Initiative, which gives students hands-on experience by allowing them to experiment with antibiotics and test its resistance to drugs in an unconventional lab setting, has reached 150 schools around the world since its inception four years ago.
Six of the 150 schools are high schools, while the remaining majority are college programs.
In Colorado, the Small World Initiative is now offered at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University.
Kurt, who was a scholar at the Aspen Ideas Festival, hopes to integrate the program locally.
“I think this is the perfect environment to look at because there are so many soil types here,” she said.
Kurt has spoken with officials at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Aspen High School and the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, but said it is “too soon to say” anything more.
To learn more about the Small World Initiative, visit http://www.small worldinitiative.org.
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