Every Sunday at 9 p.m., we hope for the survivors, and cry for those lost. We cringe at the zombies and jump at the gunshots. The Walking Dead series has taken AMC viewers by storm, bringing zombies back to television. Now students from all over the world can spend a few hours each Monday delving deep into the world of the zombie apocalypse with UC Irvine’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead.”
The popularity and fundamental questions raised by the first three seasons of the show gave professor Michael Dennin and lecturers Joanne Christopherson, Zuzana Bic and Sarah Eichhorn, the idea to create a combined online course that has become the largest ever MOOC.
The interdisciplinary course teaches public health, social science, physics and mathematics topics. The eight-week course, which began after the season premier, Oct. 14, is free and open to the public, hosted through Instructure’s Canvas Network program. After more than 20,000 students enrolled during the first week of the quarter, open enrollment led to tens of thousands more students joining the ranks to learn about survival from the journey of characters in “The Walking Dead.”
“The issues are real-life even if the zombies are not. People living in dangerous situations all over the world: terrorism, tyranny, domestic violence, poverty, natural disasters for example,” Joanne Christopherson, social sciences lecturer and associate director of UCI’s demographic and social analysis M.A. program, said. Christopherson is interested in how those who are trying to survive are flawed and have to make difficult and important decisions to navigate a situation that they never expected. She teaches deconstructing society and social identity and survival of the fittest.
“I believe the series is popular because all the characters are ordinary people. I think viewers see themselves in these characters. This is great material for a social scientist,” Christopherson said.
While the instructors have prepared and post 2-4 hours of material per week, drawing from each new episode of the season and supporting their lessons with scenes from past seasons, students can spend as much time as they choose on the voluntary course.
“The struggles the leaders have with each other and with their groups are realistic. Death by zombies is an equal opportunity the writers are not afraid to lose major characters. Besides the suspense that causes, watching the group recover from these losses is fascinating to me,” Christopherson said.
In addition to his own physics module, Michael Dennin, professor of physics and astronomy, has brought a different perspective to the otherwise social lessons taught. Dennin teaches the science of damage control. For example, he discussed the physics of avoiding zombies, Dennin, where to hide in response to the zombie’s “random walk.” Bic teaches public health and infectious disease, thriving on a post-apocalyptic diet and the science of hope.
“As a passionate public health provider I am using every opportunity to educate the public to improve quality of life for the future regardless of what will happen, and this show gives the opportunity,” Zuzana Bic, lecturer and the director of student experience in public health practice in the department of population health and disease prevention, said.
Bic’s favorite character is Hershel, because while he is not perfect, he has what he says is lacking in most of the other characters, a voice about ethics and morality. Bic interviewed Hershel about morality, privacy and his right to keep walkers in his barn.
How does math enter into the equation of survival? Eichhorn is very happy to answer that question for curious students, giving real world applications to the zombie-infested world of “The Walking Dead.”
“From the math section of this course, I am hoping to give students an appreciation of how mathematics can be useful for studying real world problems, such as disease spread,” Sarah Eichhorn, assistant vice chair for the undergraduate mathematics department, said. In her mathematics module, Eichhorn teaches modeling a zombie outbreak and discusses how realistic the rapid spread of the walker epidemic might be.
“My favorite character is definitely Michonne. I love it that she is a smart, confident woman who can take care of herself. Her use of the crippled walkers on chains as camouflage is super brilliant and none of the others seemed to come up with this strategy,” Eichhorn said.
The first half of the class has analyzed the methods of survival, hierarchy of needs and social patterns and apocalyptic instincts found in survival of a zombie apocalypse in “The Walking Dead.”
Theories from philosophers and leaders in science like Aristotle, Abraham Maslow, William Osler, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Max Weber, supported the show analysis, giving purpose to the shows’ heart-wrenching and shocking scenes. Scene clips within the lecture module offer vivid examples of social patterns such as the hierarchy of needs and the social contract theory.
Instructors have also taught students how to analyze and use models for the susceptible, infected and recovered, and for disease and quarantine.
“We are thrilled to partner with AMC. They have provided us with access to still images and video clips directly from the show,” Melissa Loble, associate dean of distance learning, said.
Each week’s lecture is supported by interviews with the actors in the show. In the first week, Dennin presented the question about who a survivalist fears most, the dead or the living.
“It should be all about community, but it is really about fighting. The dead fear the living,” Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Sasha on the show, said. Christopherson asked Emily Kinney, Beth on the show, what it means to be a woman in a post-apocalyptic world. The ten-minute lectures are reinforced by assigned and optional links as the course’s reading material.
So how do the students interact with a class that exists solely online? The instructors open questions up for discussion on the site’s message board imbedded into the lecture module for an easy and more open forum style class.
“We hope the fun, pop culture tie-in will make the course material more engaging for students and will encourage them to explore some academic fields that they might not otherwise have encountered,” Eichhorn said.
Throughout the second half of the course, students will be introduced to more public health issues like nutritional literacy and stress, as well as the physics of inflicting or protecting oneself from damage.
Students who are interested in joining the force against the walkers can register for free until the end of the course on Dec. 23 at https://www.canvas.net/courses/the-walking-dead.