'Walking Dead' comes alive in the online classroom

So where's the best place to hide during a zombie apocalypse?

A shopping mall, according to a paper by Italian physicist Davide Cassi, who says that the more twists and turns there are in a structure, the safer you are from "random walkers" (in this case, zombies).

It's one of the many helpful tips taught during the first week of "Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC's The Walking Dead," a free, eight-week online course that kicked off Monday. Offered through the University of California-Irvine, the pop culture-infused class is the brainchild of Instructure, an educational technology company that approached AMC about the idea following the success of their "Gender Through Comic Books" course, offered through Ball State University earlier this year.

"We wanted to try it again with something that was even more relevant to a larger population of people," says Brian Whitmer, co-founder of Instructure. "Everyone just kept saying, 'You gotta do Walking Dead, you gotta do Walking Dead. There's so many relevant topics there, and it's such an awesome show that's so interesting.' "

Fans of the show clearly agreed: Current enrollment is in the tens of thousands (more than 20,000 signed up within a day of the course's announcement last month).

A new lesson "module" will open every Monday for the next seven weeks, a day after each episode airs in the series' fourth season. They'll remain available until Dec. 22, for those who decide to enroll late or work at their own pace. No need to worry about spoilers from the current season, either: Each lesson includes a series of lectures, readings, discussions and videos that relate to the first three seasons, covering such topics as social sciences, health, nutrition and physics.

Instructors recommend students devote two to four hours to the course each week, although the time investment easily can be shaved in half by skipping additional readings and video lectures.

This week, the "Foundation of Survival" lesson addressed psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. He believes that humans have five stages of needs, from basic survival necessities (food, water, sex, sleep, etc.) to self-actualization (achieving one's full potential and understanding what life is about).

At the end of the module, students were asked which Walking Dead characters they believe reached self-actualization before the apocalypse began. The question received hundreds of responses: Many called Rick Grimes and Hershel Greene as the most self-actualized characters, though other student commenters disagreed, saying that none of the show's flawed protagonists has reached that level yet.

Moving forward, students will learn how to balance one's diet in order to conserve energy needed to survive, and discuss the importance of societal structures and building communities when zombies are at one's doorstep. They also will learn about population modeling, which uses math to study the growth of populations — and in this case, the ways in which the zombie infection might spread, slow, or ultimately stop.

"We don't explicitly talk about how to survive, but we talk about the major academic themes of the course, and you can use those to understand how to survive," says Melissa Loble, the course manager and associate dean of distance learning at UC Irvine.

So after putting this course together, where would its organizers hide during a zombie apocalypse, and what would be their weapon of choice?

"I would find a giant warehouse, and I would seal up all the exits except one, that was upstairs or on the roof, and that would be the only way in and out," Whitmer says. "If I had enough ammo, obviously I'd do some sort of gun, maybe a rifle or shotgun or something.

"If not that, then a very long sword."

So you want to know what it takes to survive? You can enroll in the course via www.canvas.net/TWD.


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