Mom, my teacher is a zombie!
Good afternoon, class. My name is Carl and I'll be your teacher today. Oh, by the way— I'm a zombie.
From the TV show "Walking Dead" to the movie "World War Z," zombies are hot.
(Well, technically, they're cold. But they're burning up the charts!)
And that's why scientists and educators have decided to take this seemingly unstoppable wave of zombie love and turn it into some real teachable moments.
Everyone from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to sporting-goods store REI has used zombies as the premise for survival courses. REI went so far as to turn out this zombie survival gear infographic, explaining some key supplies you'll need to stop zombies, from a cast iron skillet (aim for the head) to a flashlight (shine it right in the zombie's eyes) and utility cord (for making a zombie trip line).
The CDC wouldn't comment on the success of its zombie campaign other than to say that the content is still on its website two years later "because of its popularity and frequent visits to the site," but let's be honest here—what other CDC campaign can you recall off the top of your head?
"Zombies make everything more interesting!" said Glenn Stutzky, a professor at Michigan State University who was inspired by that CDC campaign a few years ago to launch a class titled, "Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse."
"I've been in education a couple of decades and the biggest complaint I've heard from kids is, 'Education is boring!' " Stutzky said. "Content alone is not enough to hold most people's interest and inspire them to learn. Education needs to be more interesting."
He said his class, now in its second year, has been so popular, he's received requests from all over the world, including an urban magazine in Bosnia. The lessons from a "zombie apocalypse" scenario, he says, can be applied to any number of catastrophic scenarios, which countries like Bosnia know all too well.
He's also gotten queries to set up survival courses using zombie culture for high schools.
Even actress Mayim Bialik (from the hit shows "Blossom" and "Big Bang Theory") has been bitten by the zombie epidemic.
(Statistically, it was only a matter of time.)
Bialik, who also happens to have a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA and is a spokesperson for Texas Instruments' "STEM Behind Hollywood" program, is teaming up with Harvard professor Steven Schlozman, who is the author of "The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse," to use the brain-eating creatures to inspire kids to pursue STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—careers.
"It's about taking things in Hollywood that kids already find appealing and show them there's math and science behind it—and getting them to think and act like a scientist," Bialik said.
For example, when presented with the possibility of encountering zombies, most kids' first reaction might be "What should I do, blow their heads off?" Schlozman said. "And we say, 'Well, what do you notice? That's the first step of science. You notice that they don't walk well. What region of the brain tells them to walk?' "
Or, for that matter, "what is it in the brain that makes you [or a zombie] hungry?" Bialik added.
Take a show like "Walking Dead." "You ask, from an epidemiological perspective, 'How did that disease spread?' " Schlozman said. "We're not going to have a zombie outbreak, but we're going to have other outbreaks."
"STEM Behind Hollywood" uses the scientists and experts who consult Hollywood filmmakers to create free classroom activities for teachers, including software and iPad apps, to explore popular movie themes such as zombie, superheroes, space and forensics to give students the chance to solve problems as real-life scientists would.
For example, in one activity called "Stem of the Living Dead," students explore the exponential growth of a zombie hoard and how the spread of the infection creates limited resources using World Health Organization and CDC models and graphs.
"There's nothing like seeing the world as a scientist," Bialik said.
Stutzky says zombies can also teach kids important lessons about the social sciences— psychology, social work, group dynamics.
"All these things are profoundly human. At the end of the day, it's all about relationships," he said.
For example, in his summer class, students were broken into "survival groups" and received a message, without notice, when the zombie apocalypse began. In one scenario, the groups rescue a girl who has been attacked by a zombie. She is unconscious. What do they do with her?
Most groups decided to nurse her back to health, while one group was more pragmatic and said she would be a drain on limited resources but she might have valuable information so they would keep her around until they found out what she knew. The groups later find out the ramifications of their actions. For example, what if they get rid of her only to learn in the next exercise that she had more information they needed to help with a subsequent challenge?
Stutzky said another thing they address—something that has become critical in disaster preparedness—is the role of social media. In one exercise, students were tasked with getting information from two different sources (the government and a coded message from a gang) and they were tasked with evaluating the information.
Storytelling is an important component of the course. Each student kept a zombie journal and at the end, had to create a digital story—all of which were uploaded to YouTube (watch them here). There was also a librarian, er, a "Zombrarian," in the course, which Stutzky said proved extremely helpful.
After all, no point surviving a zombie apocalypse unless you get the facts right and know how to tell the story! (Click here to "friend" the zombie apocalypse on Facebook.)
Bialik said she hopes more kids, even those who aren't naturally drawn to math and science, give it a go. She didn't get interested in science until she was 15, inspired by her biology tutor, who is now an oral surgeon.
"I thought science was for boys!" Bialik said. "It didn't come easy to me and I wasn't good at it. But just because something doesn't come easily to you, doesn't mean you're not a good learner."
Mggggghhhhh ... brains!