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Mind and Body

Exclusive: Zombie apocalypse? Students use ‘zombie science’ to learn about disease spread

A zombie apocalypse: Is it medically possible? Scenarios depicting large-scale attacks of the undead have been playing out on the big screen for years.

And this fall, they’ll hit classrooms too.  

Students around the country can now immerse themselves in “zombie pandemics” in order to learn about how diseases spread and affect the body. It’s all part of the new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Behind Hollywood Program, which teachers and students can download for free online to use at home or in the classroom.   

The series was created by Texas Instruments (TI) and The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and seeks to inspire student’s interest in math and science careers.  The STEM program will include installments on everything from forensics to zombies and superheroes.

“STEM jobs are now the fastest growing opportunities for young people,” Melendy Lovett, president of Texas Instruments Education Technology told FoxNews.com. “So it’s really important to (us) to be part of building a strong pipeline of STEM capable students, and that’s what drives our focus, getting more students interested and excited about STEM and achieving at high levels in science and math."

While zombies are not a real life concern, the elements explored in the program closely echo real life scenarios of disease spread, thanks to the expert advice of Dr. Steven Schlozman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of the book The Zombie Autopsies.

“If you…get rid of (the) rising from the dead, (zombies) will map more comfortably than most folks would like onto real neurobiological explanations and phenomenon,” Schlozman told FoxNews.com. “Then you can play that tongue-in-cheek morbid game of how would that happen.”

So how exactly would a zombie apocalypse begin? First, mankind would need to be hit by a virus capable of simultaneously attacking multiple regions of the brain, Schlozman said.

Students will learn that zombies – with their awkward, unbalanced gaits, lack of problem-solving skills, insatiable hunger and high levels of aggression – would likely have contracted a virus attacking the cerebellum, basal ganglia, amygdala, hypothalamus and frontal lobe regions of the brain.

Through this hypothetical scenario, students will learn various facts about the brain – for example, that the hypothalamus is the region of the brain affecting satiety and that zombie-like aggression could be triggered by a virus attacking the amygdala, which controls our fight-or-flight mechanism, according to Schlozman.

Figuring out how a zombie disease would attack the body isn’t all that students will be tasked with doing. They’ll also join the “Zombie Virus Inoculation Task Force” to figure out how they could control and contain the outbreak – just as if they were employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The graphs of a zombie outbreak would look like those of H1N1 or any other disease making its way from outbreak to pandemic,” Schlozman said. “In this country, the CDC, or internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO), would sit down the epidemiologists, scientists, public health experts and physicians and say, ‘What are the distinguishing characteristics of this disease? What’s happening? What else does this look like?’”

Students are required to calculate the rate of disease spread and assess how to control the disease – such as by creating a vaccine. As part of this activity, teachers are encouraged to educate students about real diseases that have been controlled through inoculations.

“It’s easier (for students) to contemplate a zombie disease spread than (the spread) of some horrific (disease) like Ebola,” Schlozman said. “So one of the reasons they’ve used zombies is it’s less scary than the real thing, and now we have this curriculum where we learn about disease spread, spread through biting, airborne (toxins), imagining what if the city is this big, or that big.  Then we combine that with the biology.”

In the case of a zombie outbreak, Schlozman says the CDC would come up with appropriate triage measures and decontamination procedures. Then, scientists around the world would quickly begin developing a vaccine to treat the rapidly spreading virus.

“These are lessons we learned with SARS, H1N1 and security measures we’ve learned through the threat of bioterrorism,” Schlozman noted.

By the end of the program, Schlozman and Lovett hope that students will emerge with a better understanding of how math and science can help contain the spread of diseases – and that some students will start to contemplate careers in which they could join the real-life fight to contain contagious diseases.

“In this, it’s like they were working in the CDC, exploring, problem solving like a…scientist in the real world,” Lovett said.

The program will be available to students and teachers online starting today at www.stemhollywood.com. The program is primarily aimed towards middle school and high school students.