Using zombies to teach science

With my colleague Greg Tinkler, I spent an afternoon last week at a local public library talking to kids about zombies:

The Zombie Apocalypse is coming. Will you be ready? University of Iowa epidemiologist Dr. Tara Smith will talk about how a zombie virus might spread and how you can prepare. Get a list of emergency supplies to go home and build your own zombie kit, just in case. Find out what to do when the zombies come from neuroscientist Dr. Greg Tinkler. As a last resort, if you can’t beat them, join them. Disguise yourself as a zombie and chow down on brrraaaaiiins, then go home and freak out your parents.

Why zombies? Obviously they’re a hot topic right now, particularly with the ascendance of The Walking Dead. They’re all over ComicCon. There are many different versions so the “rules” regarding zombies are flexible, and they can be used to teach all different kinds of scientific concepts–and more importantly, to teach kids how to *think* about translating some of this knowledge into practice (avoiding a zombie pandemic, surviving one, etc.) We ended up with about 30 people there: about 25 kids (using the term loosely, they ranged in age from maybe age 10 to 18 or so) and a smattering of adults. I covered the basics of disease transmission, then discussed how it applied to a potential “zombie germ,” while Greg explained how understanding the neurobiology of zombies can aid in fleeing from or killing them. The kids were involved, asked great questions, and even taught both of us a thing or two (and gave us additional zombie book recommendations!)

For infectious diseases, there are all kinds of literature-backed scenarios that can get kids discussing germs and epidemiology. People can die and reanimate as zombies, or they can just turn into infected “rage monsters” who try to eat you without actually dying first. They can have an extensive incubation period, or they can zombify almost immediately. Each situation calls for different types of responses–while the “living” zombies may be able to be killed in a number of different ways, for example, reanimated zombies typically can only be stopped by destroying the brains. Discussing these situations allows the kids to use critical thinking skills, to plan attacks and think through choice of weapons, escape routes and vehicles, and consider what they might need in a survival kit.

Likewise, zombie microbes can be spread through biting, through blood, through the air, by fomites or water, even by mosquitoes in some books. Agents can be viral, bacterial, fungal, prions or parasitic insect larvae (or combinations of those). Mulling on these different types of transmission issues and asking simple questions:

“How would you protect yourself if infection was spread through the air versus only spread by biting?”

“How well would isolation of infected people work if the incubation period is very long versus very short?”

“Why might you want to thoroughly wash your zombie-killing arrows before using them to kill squirrels, which you will then eat?” (ahem, Daryl)

can open up avenues of discussion into scientific issues that the kids don’t even realize they’re talking about (pandemic preparedness, for one). And the great thing is that these kids are *already experts* on the subject matter. They don’t have to learn about the epidemiology of a particular microbe to understand disease transmission and prevention, because they already know more than most of the adults do on the epidemiology of zombie diseases–the key is to get them to use that knowledge and broaden their thinking into various “what if” situations that they’re able to talk out and put pieces together.

It can be scary going to talk to kids. Since this was a new program, we didn’t know if anyone would even show up, or how it would go over. Greg brought a watermelon for some weapons demonstrations (household tools only–a screwdriver, hammer and a crowbar, no guns or Samurai swords) which was a big hit. Still, I realize many scientists are more comfortable talking with their peers than with 13-year-olds. Talking about something a bit ridiculous, like an impending zombie apocalypse, can lessen anxiety because it takes quite a lot of effort to be boring with that type of subject matter; it’s entertaining; and kids will listen. And after all, what you don’t know, might eat you.

Comments

  1. #1 RBH
    pandasthumb.org
    July 16, 2012

    What fun! Neat idea, Tara.

  2. [...] Smith wrote about the event today at ScienceBlogs: “Using zombies to teach science”: Why zombies? Obviously they’re a hot topic right now, particularly with the ascendance of The [...]

  3. #3 Navigator
    July 17, 2012

    Good for you! And you slid all the sciency stuff in there, like incubation period. Sorry I wasn’t there to see the demos with the watermelon…

  4. #4 David Madore
    United States
    July 17, 2012

    Good article!

    FYI: We have some useful zombie science over at http://necropology.com .

    We apply the scientific method to zombies to work from what’s “known” about them to then analyse and theorize possible scientific underpinnings for their behavior and physiology. Fun stuff.

    Our papers & science are free to the public and we encourage educators to use any/all of it in their curriculum or for their own entertainment. Enjoy!

    David Madore
    Necropology Institute
    Necropology.com

  5. #5 John
    United States
    July 17, 2012

    This is a great idea! I blog about the science behind zombies in nature, and so I love it when kids get excited about science from something fun. I wrote up a little piece about this article and the ZRS and look forward to seeing more!

    thedarklaboratory.blogspot.com

  6. [...] ScienceBlogs reports how professors are: Using zombies to teach science “The Zombie Apocalypse is coming. Will you be ready? University of Iowa epidemiologist Dr. Tara [...]

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  9. #9 Mr Epidemiology
    www.MrEpidemiology.com
    July 23, 2012

    Great idea – taking an intimidating subject and changing the topic to something easier to grasp is a great way to engage your audience. I do the same thing when I teach students about regression using data from the NHL.

    Have you read “The Zombie Survival Guide” by Max Brookes? That covers a lot of what you talked about :)

  10. #10 Tara C. Smith
    July 23, 2012

    Yep, have all kinds of zombie literature. :) These kids knew way more about the video games though; that’s not something I’ve really delved into.

  11. [...] Using zombies to teach science University of Iowa epidemiologist Dr. Tara Smith will talk about how a zombie virus might spread and how you can prepare. Get a list of emergency supplies to go home and build your own zombie kit, just in case. Find out what to do when the zombies come … Read more on ScienceBlogs (blog) [...]

  12. [...] ScienceBlogs reports how professors are: Using zombies to teach science “The Zombie Apocalypse is coming. Will you be ready? University of Iowa epidemiologist Dr. Tara [...]

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  14. [...] on scienceblogs.com This entry was posted in Zombies by andromeda. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

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  16. [...] now for something a bit different. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of zombies. So, I was intrigued when I started seeing press for Warm Bodies, a book by Isaac Marion about a [...]

  17. [...] 2. Zombie Science: Unlike vampires, zombies can have a good scientific basis and this makes it easy to weave the undead into areas of science as different as disease transmission, neurobiology and pandemic preparedness. This can help kids develop critical thinking and learn how to apply theoretical knowledge to real life scenarios. You can learn more about this here. [...]

  18. [...] can be used in science education, citing among other examples how Drs. Tara Smith and Greg Tinkler made use of a pending zombie apocalypse to teach Iowa schoolkids about the basic tenets of infection disease [...]

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