One moment in Season Two, Episode 5 of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” really struck UC Irvine mathematician Sarah Eichhorn. As fans know, the show’s premise is that Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes awakens from a coma to discover his world ravaged by a zombie apocalypse. As the flesh-eating undead walk the streets hunting living people and animals, he and his group must be constantly vigilant in order to survive.
“It is math,” says Grimes to his fellow humans. “Basic survival. How much fuel, how much food, how much ammo? Not much room in that equation for being soft.”
Eichhorn, who has devoted her career to helping people understand the value of numbers, heard a big opportunity in those lines. She and fellow faculty had been asked by Instructure, an online education provider, to participate in a massive open online course (MOOC) linked to the popular show. As a science fiction lover, she was intrigued and delighted to accept the invitation to teach part of the eight-week course, “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead.’”
“I never imagined as a mathematician that I would be teaching a course about zombies,” she says. “Surprisingly, there is actually a lot of interesting math related to “The Walking Dead.”
She’ll demonstrate how mathematics can be used to model population dynamics and project future species’ survival or extinction. “I’ll also show how differential equations can help us assess the efficacy of various potential interventions – vaccinations, treatments, better weapons – to curb an epidemic’s spread,” she says. Eichhorn and course administrators think people around the world could realize that they like and understand sciences, health and math – and be motivated to pursue a degree.
The course will begin Monday, Oct. 14, the day after the Season 4 premiere. Enrollment is available to anyone in the world at www.canvas.net/TWD.
Offered on Instructure’s MOOC platform, Canvas Network, it will be taught by a multidisciplinary UC Irvine team: Zuzana Bic, public health; Joanne Christopherson, social sciences; Michael Dennin, physics; and Eichhorn. They were picked based on experience teaching online, a history of using pop culture in the classroom, and strong curricular alignment with case studies from the TV series.
“Fans of the show know that ‘The Walking Dead’ is about more than zombies; it’s about survival, leadership and adapting to situations that are perilous and uncertain,” says AMC’s Theresa Beyer, vice president of promotions and activation. “AMC is excited to be the first entertainment group to make the foray into the online education arena through this unique partnership. We hope this online course will drive a deep, sustained connection with the show during its upcoming fourth season and offer a legitimate educational experience that can be applied even more broadly.”
The course is being produced with Instructure by UC Irvine Extension, which has offered free distance-learning classes through its OpenCourseWare website since 2007.
“We’re continuing our leadership in open education and public service,” says Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education. “This course breaks new ground for MOOCs, which recently have come to be viewed as for-credit undergraduate courses. MOOCs can, in fact, serve many audiences. UC Irvine and its partners are showing the way.”
Brian Whitmer, co-founder of Instructure, says working with the campus was a natural choice.
“When we started looking for a university to offer a ‘Walking Dead’ course, UC Irvine was an obvious choice for us because of its past experience with MOOCs and track record for experimentation and openness – two big areas of focus for us in the Canvas Network in general,” Whitmer says. “The team at UC Irvine has been great to work with and has made the course even more interesting and engaging than we expected it to be.”
As a social scientist, Christopherson says, “I jumped at the chance to participate.”
She’ll focus on societal organization and personal identity concepts. For instance, the show’s ups and downs offer great illustrations of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Urgent biological concerns such as food and safety come first, but when those are met, people turn to emotional needs.
“When we’re under threat, like those in the show often are, we have a tendency to regress to those lower needs. We’re not looking for relationships and self-esteem and belonging; those things are off,” she explains. “But when the survivors are safe in camp, they start to interact with each other. They have parties, the kids are playing games and they start to deal with some of those quality-of-life issues. It’s really a perfect example of that model.”
Public health instructor Bic will cover topics such as how proper nutrition after a disaster is critical to mental health and how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other health agencies work. She will also focus on stress management.
“I will be showing public health in action,” she says.
Physics professor Michael Dennin has long been interested in science outreach. He has appeared on numerous specials for the History Channel and National Geographic Channel, including “The Science of Superman,” “Batman Tech,” “Spider-Man Tech” and “Star Wars Tech.”
“This combination of popular science fiction and actual science education is an incredibly powerful mix,” says Dennin. “The opportunity to combine an online open course with a popular television show is a natural pairing. It brings together an audience with a basic interest in science – whether they realize it or not – and a raw curiosity about what is possible.”
Dennin says, “Shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ work not just because they are fun, which they are, but because they question what is possible. One can start with zombies and end with the properties of bio-inspired materials used for wound-healing and artificial limbs or organs.”
The faculty members plan to watch opening night together. They’ve prepared curricula based on past episodes – no spoilers allowed. No matter what the season ahead holds for Grimes and his battles with the undead, they are thrilled they will have the chance to offer students worldwide an opportunity to learn something new.
“The added challenge of maintaining the engagement of thousands of students is exciting as a teacher,” Dennin says. “It places us at the frontier of questioning what is possible in education. If we do not try the experiment, we will never know.”