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Zombies as a science learning tool

July 16, 2012

University of Iowa epidemiologist Dr. Tara Smith and her colleague, neuroscientist Dr. Greg Tinkler spoke about the Zombie Apocalypse, this past weekend at the Marion Public Library.

Dr. 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 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.)

Sounds like it was a successful event:

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!)

It reminds me of a sort of combination between the CDC zombie emergency preparedness, and Zombie-Based Learning for middle schoolers, with a bit of Dr. Schlozman’s Zombie Brain Autopsies (be sure to watch his awesome zombie neuroscience podcast). Recall also this college Zombie Library guide.

This also reminds me of a question recently asked by Blog of the Living Dead: “Can zombies learn?”, also mentioning Dr. Schlozman’s autopsies which notes that despite parts of the zombie’s brain destroyed they seem to still remember they are hungry. So is it possible to teach to that unconscious section of the brain? Recall the classic psychology case of HM.

HM had much of his brain removed because of epilepsy and he lost the ability to make new memories. However his working memory and procedural memory seemed to continue learning. Particularly, repetitive priming, seemed to work. The HM case suggests that, in a sense, we are all zombies, functioning with brains that are often acting (and learning) subconsciously. Musicians and dancers are familiar with muscle memory, the idea that with practice the body remembers (or automatizes) learned motions.

Zombies (like abnormal psychology more generally) are good hypothetical narratives to explore extreme situations (see also Drezner’s Zombie international politics). But Smith also points out another reason why zombies are a good educational tool. The absurd topic seems to lighten the instructor’s anxiety:

It can be scary going to talk to kids.

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.

This reminds me of theories why zombies in video games (because the jittery machine A.I. is easier and will seem more real as a zombie). This seems highly related to education; suspend the audience’s disbelief on something big and suddenly all the other little details becomes more believable.

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From → Academics

7 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Digital: Divide and Conquer and commented:
    I can admit that I have a affinity for most thing zombie. Walking Dead, check. World War Z, check. 28 Days Later, yup. I can even wrap my head around the first three Resident Evil movies just because there are zombies. I think the ideas and stories behind them are filled with more intrigue and play with our thoughts better than vampires. All that being said, the fact that doctors in Iowa are using it as a learning device to draw kids into science is great. They are making the all important connection between real-world (cultural) and education/science. Well done

  2. This is a great find. Thanks for putting it together along with all the supporting links.

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