There's a long, occasionally proud tradition of using pop culture hooks to draw people into learning: the physics of Star Trek, the political science of Star Wars, the biology of Alien. By this metric, The Walking Dead has succeeded in spades. Online course platform Canvas and UC Irvine have opened registration for "Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC's The Walking Dead," a free eight-week course that uses episodes of the show as jumping-off points for lectures, tests, and discussions on everything from ballistics to stress management. "Nutrition in a post-apocalyptic world — are squirrels really good for you?" reads one topic. Another promises to teach you how epidemics like a zombie plague could spread.
Of course, you might argue that zombies are already a mainstay of popular science, and you'd be right. Besides being delivered as a massively open online course (MOOC), this program is unique partly because it's not just a general "zombie education" course. Instead, it's a direct tie-in to the show itself. Every episode is pegged to an episode of The Walking Dead season four, with a little help from AMC. More strangely, anyone signing up will be asked a consumer response survey question about what cable or satellite company they use to watch the show. The course itself starts October 14th and runs through late December.
"Nutrition in a post-apocalyptic world — are squirrels really good for you?"
"[AMC] gave us some feedback, so we do know we're dealing with topics that align in some way with what's going to be seen that week," UC Irvine dean of distance learning Melissa Loble tells Wired. But she clarifies that they aren't privy to any spoilers, just some general hints. "Now, in what way they'll align, we don't know, but we do know that they'll align." The course description says some cast members have also contributed exclusive interviews for students.
The course is designed to appeal to a broad cross-section of fans, which is why its topics are so wide-ranging. Physics professor Michael Dennin will teach a section on the collision dynamics of shooting zombies in the head, and another section is devoted to examining social identity and stereotypes through leaders like Rick Grimes. A debate is still raging over whether MOOCs can and should replace more traditional higher education, but "Society, Science, Survival" seems far more on the "fun" end of the scale than the "rigorous" one. "I would love to see somebody get inspired by one of these topics," says Loble. "If we can inspire people who don't like math, and suddenly like math, or physics or social and health sciences, then that'd be a win for us."