Making the Grade with the Walking Dead

Canvas - The Walking DeadWhen it comes to fans of science fiction, fantasy and horror, the intelligence of the audience must be recognized if not respected. From the nostalgic influence of historic references in classic science fiction literature and film to the scientific particulars dictated by the sciences, fandom can be the most demanding in regards to accuracy. So how do we check ourselves when dealing with fantastical subjects like apocalypse and reanimated dead? Why we go back to school, of course!

Not to be outdone by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (remember when the CDC posted their tongue in cheek campaign on disaster preparedness by using the zombie apocalypse platform?), a program centered on survival by the University of California, Irvine has given fans a unique avenue to learn what it takes to make it out alive – in a world of the dead.

Prior to the fourth season of AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, fans of the show (as well as non-fans) were offered an opportunity to enroll in an on-line class through the Canvas Network. The course titled Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead “takes an interdisciplinary academic approach to understanding the ways in which human beings survive in a post-apocalyptic world.” In cooperation with UC Irvine, students were provided access to lectures and information relevant to life in a world of re-animated dead.

The Walking DeadPerhaps more out of curiosity than loyalty (though these traits can sometimes be blurred in fandom), I enrolled in the class. The first class began on October 14th following the airing of the first episode of the current season. The eighth and final class began on December 2nd after the airing of the final episode of the wild and crazy Midseason Finale of The Walking Dead.

The faculty presenting the course was made up of a diverse team of highly qualified individuals from the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Joanne Christopherson M.A., Ph.D. is a Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Associate Director of the Demographic and Social Analysis M.A. program. Dr. Zuzana Bic, Dr.P.H., MUDr. is a tenured Lecturer and the Director of Student Experience in Public Health Practice in the Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention. Dr. Sarah Eichhorn, Ph.D. is a tenured lecturer and the Assistant Vice Chair for Undergraduate Studies in the Mathematics Department. Dr. Michael Dennin Ph.D. is a professor of Physics and Astronomy. To fandom, it should be noted that he also teaches a course in the Science of Superheroes, and has appeared in some of the science specials on the History Channel and National Geographic Channel discussing the sciences of Superman, Batman Tech, Spider-Man Tech, and Star Wars Tech.

Though the course provided a weekly forum for discussion, the overall subject matter was skillfully presented in modules of specific focus following each new episode of The Walking Dead. Dr. Christopherson conducted modules 1, 3 and 4 covering Foundation of Survival, Deconstructing Society, and Social Identity and Survival of the Fittest. Dr. Bic conducted modules 2, 6 and 8 covering Public Health and Infectious Diseases, Thriving on a Post-Apocalyptic Diet, and The Science of Hope. Dr. Eichhorn conducted module 5 covering Modeling a Zombie Outbreak and Dr. Dennin conducted module 7 covering New Materials and the Science of Damage Control.

At first glance, it all seemed a bit intimidating. But once the class is started, it quickly became evident that the course did not have the typical “pressures” of a normal classroom. Though participation helps the students gain the most from each of the modules, individual contribution is purely voluntary.

Every module included a brief introduction, written lectures, multiple discussion boards and links to other various resources on the internet. Just like most other on-line courses, there were also a lot of video clips available to enhance the learning experience.

But don’t think you could get away without taking a test here. Each module included a fun end of chapter quiz. Fun? Again, the pressure is light because you could take the quiz as many times as you like. As for the questions, some were a little more lighthearted than others, but they all pertained to the theories and subjects of the individual modules. As an example, here is one of the quiz questions:

“If a car (mass over 100 kg) hits a zombie (mass under 100 kg), which of the following statements is true about impact of the collision force on each object?”

Module 8 Badge
Module 8 Badge

Sure the course was lighthearted. But it was also very intriguing and kept me coming back, week after week. Heck, I even have a cool collection of module completion badges as bragging rights. There may even be a certificate of completion in the works.

Would I survive in a zombie apocalypse? Probably not. But I might last a little longer than I would have before I had taken the course – and if it’s any consolation, I’d go out with a better understanding of what I did wrong.

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