There are unique situations when a teacher can capture every student’s attention.

March 15, 2011, was one such day.

An earthquake had generated a 42-foot high tsunami off the coast of Japan the Friday before and it had struck the Fukishima power plant. Within several days, it had knocked out the emergency generators that kept the pumps cooling the nuclear reactors, and three nuclear cores melted.

I entered my general biology class announcing that we were not covering the lesson in the syllabus but would learn about the types of radiation and how they affected the human body. Every eye followed my illustrations and every question was answered. When my students left class, they found they could answer their classmates’ and family’s questions. They became teachers, and to teach is to learn twice. When I gave the next test, everyone in class got 100 percent of the questions on nuclear biology correct.

That is a teaching moment, where emotional concerns of the moment result in long term learning.

Today, biology teachers have a rare opportunity to teach lessons in human anatomy, physiology and disease virology. And while basic knowledge is important, it is just as important that students be able to ask questions based on that knowledge. As I speak at overseas conferences, I emphasize that we don’t get Nobel Prizes for having memorized the book, but for understanding the concepts and formulating new questions that need to be answered. But we also need to ask questions just to understand and survive.

So what are the questions that today’s students should be asking about the COVID-19 epidemic?

Since it is a virus, how do viruses replicate? Is it a DNA or RNA virus? Where did it come from? How can we use its genetic code to trace its origin?

How is it transmitted to a human — as a virus particle, in a mucous droplet? How does it enter a patient — via breathing, oral route, through skin? What prevents transmission — hand washing, masks (and what type), social distancing? Can this virus survive as an infectious agent on surfaces and be picked up by hand contact? For how long? Will infections decline in warmer seasons?

What are the symptoms of becoming ill with this virus? Do infected people shed the virus before they get sick and express symptoms? How long is this incubation period? For how much time should they be isolated? Do they shed the virus after they have recovered and feel well, and for how long? Are there individuals who are infected who never show any symptoms of being ill, and if so, how big a proportion of the population are they?

How can we test to distinguish it from other infectious diseases that present the same symptoms?

Exactly how does the virus cause the illness? What tissues are affected? How much damage occurs? Is there a difference in virulence among different ages, between sexes or among different populations? What are the chances of dying from the virus infection? Can it cause permanent disability in some people who survive?

Are there medications that would help prevent the infection? Or make the symptoms milder? What equipment is needed for the very ill who cannot breathe? How rapidly is it spread from person-to-person, that is, how contagious is it? How would a vaccine be made? How would we know it is effective? Safe?

When the COVID-19 epidemic is over, a student will not likely need to remember the information specific to this disease. But they will need to retain the ability to logically and scientifically inquire into the next challenge that comes along.

Science teachers with solid training in human anatomy and physiology as well as microbiology can answer most of the above questions for a classroom of students today. But good teachers will also lead students into asking the subsequent questions. And a highly involved class will generate much of this logical questioning. And where our current experts have not yet found the answers, that is where the good teacher leads the students into just what further experiments and data are needed. A classroom of students reinforces each other. Understanding grows and “aha!” occurs as students listen to the instructor and to each other. This does not occur when an isolated student is watching a presentation on a screen.

Nor can these lessons occur when a high school science teacher lacks any coursework in human anatomy and physiology and disease microbiology. And today, a large percentage of American secondary science teachers lack that training. And that disease of science illiteracy will plague us long after this COVID-19 epidemic is over.

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