The STEM Zombie Apocalypse

What can zombies teach kids about the brain? Images from popular culture provide an entry point to exploring science and math.

September 21, 2018
©iStock/Steve Debenport

So many adults, including teachers, joke about not being able to do simple math or not being a “science person” that many students enter STEM classrooms with negative views. This creates a fixed mindset as students believe they need certain natural abilities to be successful in math and science. As educators, we need to create opportunities for students to overcome these deeply planted negative views.

Using images or ideas from popular culture gives students an entry point to explore science—they’re already experts, and they can use the confidence they have in that area to become more open to learning and experiencing how math and science are rooted in creativity and imagination.

Using a Zombie Apocalypse Scenario

I (Ed) have a background in neuroscience, so when I used to teach units on brain function in my classroom in Chicago Public Schools, I just assumed that students would be fascinated hearing about the brain. I later realized that my lessons were based on rote memorization and testing—there was little room for students to apply their learning in a real way.

So I decided to harness the power of zombies, and Amy and I created a series of workshop lessons in which students learn the structure and function of different brain regions by examining the various types of zombies that would arise from lesions to specific regions of the brain. We developed these lessons as part of a weeklong zombie camp, but we’ve also been able to break them up into two-hour chunks.

Concentrating on four regions—the cerebellum, amygdala, frontal lobe, and hypothalamus—we started by making paper brain hats, which gave each student a 3D model to refer to, and also set the tone that science does not always need to be serious.

Students next brainstormed characteristics of zombies: They move slowly, they’re hungry, they lack coordination, etc. We challenged the students to consider how a zombie virus would have to impact the brain to cause these characteristics. What part of the brain would need to be damaged to make a zombie move slowly? to make it angry?

We challenged students to apply their learning and explain what characteristics a zombie might have if the virus only corrupted select parts of the brain. If they observed a zombie that did not seem hungry or angry, but was moving slowly, what type of brain damage had it sustained? Could they describe the brain of a fast, hungry zombie?

Instead of taking a test, students created projects categorizing various zombies they might encounter based on how deeply the virus had impacted the zombies’ brains.

Some students wrote survival handbooks describing zombie types and ranking how dangerous a zombie would be based on the amount of damage its brain had sustained. Other students made public service announcement–style posters and life-size zombie cutouts illustrating how a zombie might look with that type of brain damage.

Students also wrote choose-your-own-adventure scenarios based on encounters with zombies with different brain lesions.

Students experienced deep learning as they held extended conversations debating whether they should run if they met a zombie with an intact frontal lobe or if the zombie had an intact cerebellum.

These connections helped students engage deeply and move forward with their inquiries into the brain.

Begging for More Math

The students were so excited about the choose-your-own-adventure format that they begged for more scenarios. We were able to make interdisciplinary connections by incorporating creative writing and math story problems.

Our story problems were long and were embellished with visual details and references to familiar locations in the area around us. For example, we gave students scenarios in which zombies were headed in their direction and they had to work out whether they had time to get to different locations for supplies and back to their hiding place before the zombies arrived.

The students were so excited about solving these problems that they decided to write their own story problems to present to other groups. They were using creative writing and math in a real way, and including various plot perspectives. (We did include rules that scenarios could not include violence, unnecessary gore, or death.)

These scenarios may not be real, but when students get excited and engaged in a topic, they move toward self-directed inquiry. One set of parents, for example, told us that their daughter was inspired to take out her math books to practice so she would be ready for the upcoming story problems. And throughout these camps we have seen kids grabbing books from our collection to learn more about zombies so that they can keep working.

It’s not enough these days to just know science facts—students need to be able to apply their learning in a creative manner and to use design thinking. Connecting to pop culture lends itself to this creativity and outside-the-box thinking.

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