Zombies! What comes to mind?

AMC’s The Walking Dead? The Resident Evil franchise? Education?

Personally, I imagine the rotting flesh and deep groans of humans who now walk the Earth (extremely slowly) as the undead—acting on one impulse: to satisfy their ravenous appetite for human flesh.

But, surprisingly, it is scenarios like this that are proving essential in teaching college classes about survival and human preparedness when struck with global disease, natural disasters or terrorism.

Professors are using popular culture—in this case, zombies and an impending zombie apocalypse—to attract students to classes where the scope of the class goes far beyond zombie culture.

In 2012, a professor at Michigan State University introduced the course “Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse—Catastrophes and Human Behavior.” Capitalizing on the popularity of the undead in current media, the course examines “how human behavior and nature change after catastrophic incidences—from the historical to the hypothetical—through a blend of traditional coursework, online forums and a catastrophic event simulation.”

Similarly, during the 2014 spring semester, Central Michigan University “From Revelation to ’The Walking Dead,’” a religion course “exploring apocalyptic themes in biblical texts, literature and pop culture.” This class will discuss the “hypothetical ethical and theological problems that people could encounter in a post-apocalyptic world.”

During my undergrad, I took a gender and women’s studies course that focused on how women are portrayed in popular culture. This class was entertaining, but it wasn’t advertised using the ploy that students would be watching videos or movies the entire semester. Students took the class because they were interested in understanding the dynamic between women and popular culture and its corresponding effects, whether negative or positive. I entered the class ready to be bombarded with dense scholarly articles, and I was. However, some classes focused on video clips and movies that were required for discussion. Yes, they were fun to watch, but they also provided necessary reference for our topics and never became the sole focus of the class.

While undead-themed classes certainly examine much more than zombies, I think it would be beneficial to the students to understand exactly what the course entails rather than be enticed by the idea of a semester-long class about zombies. These classes offer insight into psychology, anthropology and geology, and students may not be aware of that from a class title including the word zombie.

This brings us to another point: What does it say about today’s college-bound that professors feel the need to reference popular media in order for potential students to consider a class?

An article from USA Today College states, “The issue of student engagement has begun to loom particularly in the growing field of massive open online courses (MOOCs), classes designed to reach hundreds—or even thousands—of college students. A recent study [PDF link] by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education [Penn GSE] crystallized the issue. The group studied one million users of MOOCs at the university and found that only an average of 4 percent of students actually completed their chosen courses.”

In another instance, the Utah-based company Instructure collaborated with the University of California, Irvine (UCI), to “try to combat student disinterest by relating complex sociological and scientific concepts to zombies in a MOOC titled “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s ’The Walking Dead’ in October through December 2013.”

What is the reason behind this disinterest? Do college students simply want to take their required courses and not bother with elective courses—no matter how beneficial they might be?

Whatever the reason, the idea of generating student interest in unique classes is a great thing—regardless of how this buzz is created. If zombies will fill seats in classrooms, virtual or otherwise, then let’s use them to educate.

Did You Know?

According to an article in Wired called “The Best Way to Teach Kids Math and Science, Zombies,” Texas Instruments (TI) has developed an educational program that “uses models of zombie outbreak loaded onto TI graphing calculators, computers, or iPads to demonstrate everything from brain damage [. . .] to the patterns in which disease spread.”

The program contains a battery of activities that teachers can download for computers, TI graphing calculators or iPads via TI apps. Additionally, TI is working with “physics professors, anthropologists, and NASA scientists to develop similar entertainment-focused education programs focused on superheroes, forensics and space.”