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College Students Drawn to Bioterrorism Classes

Talk of smallpox, anthrax and bubonic plague has prompted many college students to grab their laptops and run to the classroom.

Courses related to bioterrorism are among the hottest at campuses nationwide, with many schools trying to keep up with demand.

Last fall, the University of the South, in Sewanee Tenn., introduced its "Bio-Terrorism" course, designed to familiarize students with various bacteria and their toxins and explore the diseases they cause.

John Palisano, the biology professor who taught the class, said his goal was to have his students become "scientifically literate," and to be able to evaluate policy decisions and their effectiveness.

"So many people understand so little about the science that impacts us everyday," he said. "If you don't understand the problem, then you can't make informed decisions about the costs and benefits of proposed solutions."

A similar course at George Washington University, titled "Coping with Bioterrorism," introduces students to various biological agents and teaches them how to protect themselves in the event of a biological attack.

"I think that course is a great idea," said 22-year-old Elizabeth Levy, a recent Vassar College graduate. "I wish they had a course like that when I was at school. I think it would help ease my worries right now."

Not all colleges are ready to jump on the bioterrorism bandwagon. Adelphi University, in Garden City, N.Y., is focused on creating a one-credit emergency preparedness course that will enable students to handle themselves in dangerous situations, such as a terrorist attack.

"If it is strictly a course in bioterrorism, it is likely to wane over the years," said university President Robert Scott, who said he hasn’t completely ruled out such a course. "We are looking at this from two angles: What are students looking for, and what does society need?"

Adelphi freshman Sevi Agelarkis, 18, thinks her school is better off creating courses in emergency preparedness than in biological weapons. "I wouldn’t want to take a [bioterrorism course]. What for? So I can know that I might die tomorrow?

"It is too depressing…. I would rather take a CPR class or something to know what to do in case of an emergency."

"Everyone understands what a bomb can do, but I don't think they understand what a biological weapon can do," said Alvin Winters, who teaches "Biodefense and Emerging Diseases," a course open to biology majors and non-majors at the University of Alabama.

"Some of the student population has their head in the clouds because this sort of thing hasn't struck home yet."

But for students who aren’t in the know, ignorance may be short-lived.

New York State Sen. Michael Balboni, one of 43 people appointed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Citizen Corp. Council, has drafted a bill that would require all students attending college in the state to be certified in CPR, triage and evacuation skills.

"This is not about being scared. This is about being prepared," said Balboni. The more people who learn how to respond properly to a biological attack, he said, "the stronger we will be as a nation."

More than ever, students are thinking about security. According to a recent Gallup survey, one in five college students has thought of switching career plans in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

And some of the most coveted jobs are those in the military and intelligence agencies. With millions of college students vying for only 70,000 spots in the U.S. armed forces, those with knowledge of biological weaponry and life-saving skills will have an edge over other possible recruits.

"Each day it becomes clearer that science and technology play a key role in the war on terrorism," said Rebecca Lucore, manager of Bayer's Making Science Make Sense program. "What should also be clear is that now, more than ever, we as a nation need to make improving math and science education a priority.

"From bioterrorism to cyberterrorism and beyond," she added, "few will feel the effects of our changed world as much as today's college students."