Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Best Way To Teach Kids Math And Science? Zombies Of Course!

Actress and scientist Mayim Bialik (center) and Harvard Medical School professor Steven Schlozman (to her left) helped Texas Instruments develop a STEM education program based on zombie behavior.
Texas Instruments, the company that made the graphing calculator the most ubiquitous learning tool since the book, is giving teachers everywhere an invaluable new tool for teaching science and math: zombies.
Yes, zombies. Zombies on graphing calculators, no less.
The walkers aren’t alone, either. Their ambassador is actress (and scientist IRL) Mayim Bialik. The woman we all knew as Blossom before she got a PhD in neuroscience and joined the cast of The Big Bang Theory has helped TI develop a program that teaches middle and high school students science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The program uses models of zombie outbreaks loaded onto TI graphing calculators, computers, or iPads to demonstrate everything from brain damage (natch) to the patterns in which disease spreads. It’s brilliant, really. Students, inundated by walkers from World War Z to The Walking Dead, already understand the basics of zombie behavior, which provides a gruesome yet entertaining mnemonic device for understanding much more complex ideas.
“The neural anatomy that we go into is really the jumping off point in this particular activity, and the actual activity is about what would happen if a virus that was turning people into zombies were to spread,” Bialik told WIRED. “This presents the opportunity for modeling, for teaching about graphing, for teaching about disease progression, for teaching about the problem-solving that would be involved if you were to, for example, work for the Centers for Disease Control and had to analyze this.”
STEM Behind Hollywood program offers graphing calculator software that simulates a zombie outbreak.Images: Texas Instruments
Wait. What? Zombies? Yes. It turns out certain zombie behavior can be used to show the effects of damaging certain areas of the brain. Let’s say, for example, you want kids to learn about the group of nuclei at the base of the forebrain known as the basal ganglia. Show them Night of the Living Dead and explain that the loss of coordination the undead display in Romero’s masterpiece can be caused by damage to that region. To teach students about the regions of the brain that handle problem solving and impulse control, tell them zombies have highly compromised frontal lobes. Want to explain the cerebellum? Tell students — or, using the TI software, show them — that we know zombies must have damage to that area because they can’t walk well.
If you’re wondering, it’s over-stimulation of the hypothalamus that makes the undead so hungry for flesh.
In addition to Bialik, who brings her neuroscience background and “puts a female face on STEM,” TI’s education program “STEM Behind Hollywood” was developed with experts from the National Academy of Science’s nonprofit Science and Entertainment Exchange. The nonprofit provides experts that advise television and movie productions to ensure scientific accuracy. One of those experts, Harvard Medical School professor Steven Schlozman, literally wrote the book on walker biology, The Zombie Autopsies. He helped develop the curriculum, in no small part because he was once a nerdy kid who pondered such important questions as why there was noise in space on Star Trek. The undead provide a good model for teaching science, Schlozman told WIRED, because they’re relatively new to pop culture, have been seen almost entirely on movie screens, and have real and fairly easily-diagnosed medical issues.
“If I were to write a paper explaining werewolves, it would be a very short paper,” Schlozman joked. “[Zombie study] actually lends itself more than you think it would, and that’s because their behavior is kind of weirdly recognizable to anybody who recognizes those movies. When you watch those movies and think about their brains, you can’t not think about what is wrong with their brains.”
The learning program, available now just in time for the upcoming school year, is a series of classroom activities teachers can download for free and run on computers, TI graphing calculators, or on iPads via various TI apps. (Classroom movie time is optional, obviously.) Bialik and Schlozman have tried them with students and, according to Schlozman, found the kids could grasp the neuroscience almost immediately.
And zombies are just the start. TI has also been working with physics professors, anthropologists, and NASA scientists to develop similar entertainment-focused education programs focused on superheroes, forensics, and space. “These are things that are very prominent in Hollywood, very interesting and exciting for young people, and have a tremendous amount of science and math,” Bialik said.
Guess that means the days of hiding comics in textbooks are over – soon they’ll be there in plain sight.

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