Bioterrorism Education

Beyond the habitats of bugs and bunnies, today's environmental science classroom has a new set of conditions to explore.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, brought a new reality to the schools of the United States. Suddenly, during a few hours on an otherwise beautiful morning in the Northeast, the world changed. This day became an extraordinary school day for millions of American children as fear, confusion and disbelief gripped their lives. Following quickly on the heels of 9-11, in early October 2001, an anthrax attack left many wondering, "What happened and will it happen again?" School counselors and teachers were challenged with answering these questions and related questions on an individual basis. But, is there a need to continue to address such questions with the broader student body? What issues need to be addressed, and what details need to be excluded? How far should we go with the brutal reality of terrorism when we teach the more mature high school students? At what point does teaching about such a harsh issue become unethical? And, finally, can teaching about potential attacks improve student comprehension of related science issues in environmental science, along with biology, chemistry and the physical sciences?

Here we begin to answer some of these questions for the environmental science classroom -- the particular challenge that bioterrorism presents to science educators. Much of the discussion, however, pertains to any acts of terrorism that could alarm students.

Addressing Bioterrorism Concerns
"Familiarity lessens fear." The familiarity that lessens fear can be bad if it desensitizes children to the consequences of violence, or if it emboldens individuals to take foolish risks. However, appropriate education on bioterrorism can familiarize students with the important issues surrounding the "whys" and "hows" of bioterrorism. Student enlightenment through bioterrorism education may illuminate the terrorists' nefarious reasoning and implementations. With greater understanding of such thinking and doing, students can be taught to perceive the out-thinking and undoing of the terrorist as a worthy challenge, rather than a fearful problem. After all, the best way to defeat a terrorist is to not become terrorized -- a state of mind.

Everything You Were Afraid to Know about Anthrax

The students' state of mind can be relaxed through sound and sensitive instruction on bioterrorism. But, is teaching such topics in our schools ethical? News media, public television and educators have said "yes."

The news media and public television certainly see that school children are an appropriate audience for hard facts on bioterrorism. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, a CNN (Cable News Network) Newsroom Classroom Guide was produced that addressed the critical terrorism issues at that time.1 The CNN Newsroom Classroom Guides are designed to accompany the daily CNN Newsroom broadcasts. The October guide addressed topics such as the Taliban, Domestic Agenda, Bioterrorism Early Warning, Air Quality Concerns and Anthrax Investigation. A Program Rundown was given with Internet links related to "America's New War." Numerous pertinent questions for teachers to ask students about the stories presented in the broadcasts were provided.

After all, the best way to defeat a terrorist is to not become terrorized.

Segments on the television program NOVA that featured potential bioterrorism and dirty bomb attacks were recently aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).2 PBS considers these subjects appropriate for high school students.

However, younger students are aware of terrorist attacks and can demonstrate their interest in playtime activities. "Almost immediately after September 11, primary teachers everywhere reported students making tall buildings and then crashing them down."3

Since students of all ages are cognizant of and curious about terrorist activities, educators have the responsibility to address student questions and concerns and help allay their fears, while directing students into right thinking about the matter. One professor of education expressed the need for effectively addressing violence in general, including terrorism, by stating that, as educators, "we must take seriously our responsibility to help our youngest students deal with the violence that they hear about. By making their responses to the news a legitimate part of the early childhood curriculum, we will contribute to students' overall sense of safety and well being, a necessary condition for effective learning to occur." 3

Reality Check
Administratively, schools are preparing for potential terrorist actions. On November 6, 2001, Dr. Rod Paige, U.S.Secretary of Education, and other government officials met with school security chiefs. More than 25 school districts, including some of the nation's largest districts, were on hand. Ms. Alicia Fry, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) epidemiologist who was investigating the anthrax cases, "reported on the use of biological weapons, exposure and contamination issues and concerns about hoaxes." 4

Furthermore, in addition to fire drills and other emergency practices, schools may soon conduct evacuation exercises for terrorist attacks. Such exercises were recommended by the U.S. Department of Education after meeting with the State Department and representatives from other countries to discuss strategies "for helping schools prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks." 5 Education officials hope to apply lessons learned from the military. The CDC is "providing information on identifying and handling bio-terrorist threats such as anthrax," while the Harvard School of Public Health is "being consulted about the mental health needs of those affected by crisis." 5

The subject of bioterrorism presents a wealth of exciting, unusual and potentially scary examples that can be used to stimulate upper division students' interest while demonstrating the application of matematical and scienitific principles to the solution of a critical real-world challenge.

With this sensible administrative preparation underway, the preparation of our school children also would make sense. As a minimum, appropriate age-sensitive education can be conducted on why schools are vigilant about potential bioterrorism, how administrators and teachers are working to protect students and what students can do to help (thus empowering students). But, more than just these basic issues must be addressed with our students.

Educational Benefits from Teaching on Bioterrorism
Many educational benefits can be realized from teaching more than just the basics on potential bioterrorism.

Although much of the classroom discussion involving bioterrorism would be too technically sophisticated for younger students, simple concepts can be presented. For instance, the potential myriad of biological agents could simply be referred to as "germs." And, the details of how these germs compromise the health of their victim could be described simply as "making a person very sick and maybe even causing him or her to die." At the same time, the school's and community's efforts to mitigate such threats also must be conveyed. The true benefit, however, can be delivered to older, more mature high school students.

The subject of bioterrorism presents a wealth of exciting, unusual and potentially scary examples that can be used to stimulate upper division students' interest while demonstrating the application of mathematical and scientific principles to the solution of a critical real-world challenge. For example, environmental educators have been encouraged to include bioterrorism topics in their classes.6 Contamination of the environment can be viewed as having three components: sources of contaminants, dispersion of pollutants through the environmental media and receptors of dispersed contaminants. Biochemical agents can be used as excellent examples of contaminants that can be dispersed through the media, such as the spread of anthrax through the atmosphere or the dispersal of cholera through a water supply.

To mitigate the concern about personal and environmental impact, a discussion of decontamination agents and biochemical detectors can be provided. For example, teachers can explain that familiar cleaning agents such as hydrogen peroxide, bleach with vinegar and chlorine dioxide can be used by emergency responders to cleanse contaminated surfaces.7 In addition, sophisticated sensors are being designed to warn troops and commuters about the presence of harmful organisms in the air.8

To help students grasp technical information, simple "fact sheets" can be prepared on individual topics of interest like "How to Predict the Arrival of Unwelcome Biochemicals in Your Backyard" or "Everything You Were Afraid to Know About Anthrax" (see sidebar).

Bioterrorism preparedness groundwork is currently being done for "development of high-quality instructional resources, guided by sound principles of instructional design that enhance knowledge, thinking skills, and problem-solving abilities of students and adult community members." 9 Such positive activity is sorely needed to counter negative terrorist activity.

If delivered with sensitivity and age-appropriate information, the topic of bioterrorism can be used in schools to reduce anxiety while providing a new opportunity to teach environmental science concepts. As such, bioterrorism education can be used to defend against potential terrorist attacks. Imagine impotent terrorists who are not able to produce fear in their human targets. This imagination can become a reality with the right bioterrorism education in place in our schools.

Everything You Were Afraid to Know about Anthrax*

  • The technical name for the bacteria anthrax is Bacillus anthracis -- discovered in 1850 by Casimir-Joseph Davaine, a French parasitologist who used a microscope to examine the blood of infected sheep.
    • The word anthracis is the Latin transliteration of the Greek word for coal, since the bacteria causes a lesion that develops a black scab-like crust.
    • "Anthrax is a zoonosis, a disease that can travel from animals to humans." The animals almost always associated with anthrax are grazing animals (sheep, cows, goats and horses).
    • Conditions for spore formation include 10 to 40 degrees Celsius, sufficient oxygen and complex nutrition. Spores can persist in soil for 70 years. About a trillion potentially lethal spores can be contained in a single gram of anthrax.
    • Humans can contract anthrax by skin contact (cutaneous), eating tainted meat (gastrointestinal) and breathing it in (inhalation). The worst form of contact is usually through inhalation.
    • Inhalation anthrax (almost always fatal, if untreated) results from breathing deep into the lungs microscopic anthrax spores in the range of 1 to 5 mm in diameter. Treatment includes the use of antibiotics (like ciprofloxacin). Vaccine also can be effective.
    • "Anthrax spores, tough enough to withstand bomb detonation and small enough to aerosolize, have been a preferred agent for every nation that has sought to develop and produce biological weapons." Air exposure to only nine spores per individual could possibly infect two percent of a population.

    * Items adapted from Reference 10. Quoted information also from Reference 10.


    1. CNN (2001). CNN Newsroom Classroom Guides. Cable News Network, Atlanta: Turner Educational Services Inc., October, 115 pages.

    2. WGBH (2002). "Bioterror." NOVA. WGBH Educational Foundation. WGBH Boston Video.

    3. Levin, Diane E. (2003). "When the World Is a Dangerous Place." Educational Leadership. Vol. 60, No. 7, pp. 72-75.

    4. Editors (2001). "Secretary Paige Meets with School Security Chiefs to Discuss School Safety." Regulatory Intelligence Database. No. 6.

    5. Henry, Tamara (2002). "Schools May Do Terror-Evacuation Drills." USA Today. February 18, p. 12B.

    6. Sadar, Anthony J. (2002). "The Dispersal of Biochemical Agents Through the Atmosphere." Presented at Sowing the Seeds for Change Through Environmental Education, Pennsylvania Alliance for Environmental Education, PAEE Conference 2002, Lancaster, Pa., November 14-17.

    7. Perry, William (2003). "Biological Agent Decontamination." Contingency Planning & Management. Vol. VIII, No. 3, pp. 48-51.

    8. Gorman, Jessica (2003). "Danger Detection." Science News. Vol. 163, No. 23, pp. 362-364.

    9. Nous, Albert P. (2003). Bioterrorism Preparedness in America: Understanding the Science and Education Issues. (In preparation).

    10. Guillemin, Jeanne (1999). Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

    This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 14, No. 7.

    This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

    Featured Webinar