More Brains? Teaching STEM by Studying Zombies

What does a zombie apocalypse have to offer STEM education? Plenty.

Neuroscientist and actress Mayim Bialik (center) and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Steve Schlozman teach students about science and math by studying a theoretical zombie apocalypse.
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Educators are trying to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and math by linking STEM education to things many students already love: zombies, space travel, superheroes and crime investigations.

Created by Texas Instruments with help from the National Academy of Sciences' Science & Entertainment Exchange, "STEM Behind Hollywood" aims to inspire students by showing them how TV and movies rely on science to make fantastical ideas believable.

[WATCH: Highlights From the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference]

"Once you have something that's already in young people's consciousness... that's a great opportunity to tap into that interest level and teach the real math and science behind it," neuroscientist, Emmy-nominated actress ("The Big Bang Theory") and Texas Instruments brand ambassador Mayim Bialik told U.S. News & World Report in an interview.

[READ: STEM Scholarships Abound for Aspiring Scientists]

Given the popularity of AMC's hit TV show "The Walking Dead" and Brad Pitt's summer blockbuster "World War Z" -- not to mention cult classics like "The Night of the Living Dead" and "Resident Evil" -- a zombie apocalpyse seems like a smart place to start. They're so entrenched in pop culture that in 2011 the CDC (yes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) released a guide to preparing for a zombie apocalypse, urging people to apply it to real-life emergencies as well. Entertainment factor aside, though, a fictional zombie attack offers an opportunity to teach kids about actual public health issues, graphs, charts, and how the brain works.

"There is real math and science behind zombies," Bialik points out. "There is neuroanatomy we can teach from it... What part of the brain is responsible for the way zombies walk? What part of the brain is responsible for their insatiable appetite, what part of the brain would be responsible for their rage or their lack of cognition?"

To develop their "Zombie Apocalypse" program, Texas Instruments teamed up with Dr. Steve Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of "The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse." He helped the company develop a math-and-science activity that was heavy on Hollywood drama as well as real-life science, exploring how a hypothetical contagion could infect humans and transform a population into a horde of brain-eating undead.

"It's important to know zombies aren't real but that doesn't mean we can't think out loud in the classroom about what makes them sick and have teachable moments with students on epidemiology and neurology," Schlozman said in a statement. "This first activity takes scary, real-life scenarios like avian flu or Ebola outbreaks and turns it into something we can talk about and have some fun with, while still learning and exploring some very serious science concepts."

"I think the really interesting part is we model what it would really look like if there was a virus or a zombie pandemic," says Bialik . "This becomes an opportunity to teach not only some basic graphing, but also some complicated notions about saturation point and exponential increase and what it's like to have shifting populations of infected vs. non-infected [people]."

Once students have had their fill of zombies and brains, they can move on to other pop culture-inspired programs about space travel, superheroes, and "CSI"-style forensics. A new segment will launch every month, and the activity ideas, student worksheets, and lesson plans are all available as free downloads at stemhollywood.com.

"It's so easy to teach something when they're already seeing it in Hollywood," Bialik says. "To take things that we think of as purely entertainment, and show students that math and science and technology and engineering is really in everything."

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Educators Take Aim at STEM Myths

The Not-So-Simple Roadmap to Solving STEM Problems

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  • Lylah Alphonse

    Lylah M. Alphonse is the Managing Editor of Special Reports for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or e-mail her at LAlphonse@usnews.com.